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Posts from the ‘Cars’ Category

Elon Musk: Tesla Will Have Level 5 Self-Driving Cars This Year

Forbes, 09/07/20

Tesla will have essentially fully autonomous self-driving vehicles this year, CEO Elon Musk said in a video recorded for a Chinese AI conference. And it can be achieved with the existing technology inside Teslas shipping today.

“I remain confident that we will have the basic functionality for level five autonomy complete this year,” he said. “I think there are no fundamental challenges remaining for level five autonomy.”

There are many small problems, Musk acknowledged, and there’s the challenge of not just solving them but putting the whole system together. And even when almost complete, there could be challenges.

“You’re able to handle the vast majority of situations,” he told the World AI Conference in Shanghai. “But then there will be something very odd.”

Level zero self-driving is complete human control. Level five is completely autonomous is any situation: no human driver is required. Currently shipping systems are typically thought to be level two or three. Level four is self-driving, but generally only in select conditions and on certain roads.

Of course, having level five autonomy in the lab is not the same as delivering it to customers. And there’s the whole matter of regulatory approval as well. So Musk’s declaration that Tesla has is extremely close to solving full autonomy and self-driving for cars should not necessarily be taken as a commitment to delivering that capability to customers in 2020.

However, as I’ve argued in the past, Tesla is the car maker most capable of both quickly learning from an incomparable amount of data and rapidly releasing those learnings to its customers. The company’s self-driving technology is the best currently shipping in the world, and improving at a faster rate than any other automotive manufacturer. (Friends of mine have used the company’s Autopilot technology for tens of thousands of miles. One let his Tesla drive him from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, using a fruit wedged in the steering wheel to simulate a human touch.)

While not perfect — and while Musk has probably been too aggressive in promoting it — Tesla’s Autopilot technology is simply learning faster from more miles driven than any other competitor.

Those real-world situations that its millions of cars face every day are critical, Musk says.

“You need a kind of a real-world situation,” Musk said. “Nothing is more complex and weird than the real world. Any simulation we create is necessarily a subset of the complexity of the real world.”

Musk has said that Autopilot technology was basically the “entire expense structure” at Tesla, highlighting that it’s a core driver of Tesla’s value proposition. That’s why the company charges thousands of dollars for Autopilot technology — and has since 2016 — that cannot yet be fully used by customers.

But customers of Teslas today won’t need technology upgrades to use full autonomy when it ships, Musk said.

“I’m absolutely confident that this can be accomplished with the hardware that is in the Tesla today,” he told attendees. “And simply by making software improvements we can achieve level five autonomy.”

New Study Shows That SUVs Remain ‘Disproportionately Likely To Kill’

So why is Ford introducing a new Bronco now, in the middle of a climate and a safety crisis?

Treehugger, 16/07/20

Ford has just proudly introduced a new, updated version of the Bronco, the company’s Jeep-like off-road capable SUV that was killed in the late 90s. It might seem like an odd time, in the middle of a climate crisis; as Aaron Gordon notes in Vice, “every driver who ‘upgrades’ from a sedan to an SUV is a net-negative for the environment, undoing all of the gains in fuel efficiency since they last bought a vehicle. And over the last several decades, that transition has been the single largest and most significant trend in American transportation.”

Coincidentally, its release comes at a time when the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has released a brief report, Pedestrian injuries from cars and SUVs: updated crash outcomes from the Vulnerable Road User Injury Prevention Alliance (VIPA), that looks again at the question of the safety of these vehicles. We have noted before that the high flat front of SUVs and pickups is deadly, killing pedestrians at significantly higher rates than a car, as has the IIHS:

Past research has found that SUVs, pickup trucks, and passenger vans pose an outsize risk to pedestrians. Compared with cars, these vehicles (collectively known as LTVs) are 2-3 times more likely to kill the pedestrian in a crash. The elevated injury risk associated with LTVs seems to stem from their higher leading edge, which tends to impart greater injury to the middle and upper body (including the thorax and abdomen) than cars, which instead tend to cause injury to the lower extremities.

This is because there are no standards or regulations for pedestrian safety in the USA, which is the way the manufacturers like it because it would mess up the manly grills, and make every pickup truck look like the wimpy European-designed Ford Transit.

In the EU, cars have to be designed to absorb the force of the pedestrian hitting it, usually by having a space between the hood (bonnet over there) and the engine. Where they don’t have enough room, they actually have an “active bonnet” with explosives that push the hood up to absorb the shock. The Tesla Model S, when sold in Europe, has an active hood that raises three inches; of course, it isn’t sold in North America because pedestrian safety is not a priority.

The IIHS update shows how bad SUVs are for people who walk. Interestingly, they find that the danger varies with speed:

SUVs remain disproportionately likely to injure and kill pedestrians compared with cars, but these differences emerged primarily at crashes of intermediate speed. Crashes at low speeds and high speeds tend to produce similar injury outcomes independent of striking vehicle type (mild and fatal, respectively) The data suggest that the elevated danger to pedestrians from SUVs in these crashes may be largely related to injuries caused by impacts with the vehicles’ leading edge: the bumper, grille, and headlights. 

Below 19 miles per hour, the IIHS says SUVs do not seem to cause more injury than cars. This is surprising since cars are generally designed to European NCAP standards (American companies like to sell them there) where the victim is thrown on to the hood instead of flattened on the grille. “Low-speed crashes tend to be benign enough that pedestrians emerge with only minor injuries regardless of vehicle type.” The data in figure 2 don’t make low-speed crashes look so negligible or benign to me, with 8% of those hit by SUVs dying, not to mention all those upper body injuries versus broken legs (they don’t provide those statistics); perhaps they consider 8% statistically insignificant.

At intermediate speeds (20 to 39 miles per hour) 30% of those hit by SUVs died, compared to 23% of those hit by cars. Where the IIHS gets weird is at high speeds; they say that “crashes at low speeds and high speeds tend to produce similar injury outcomes independent of striking vehicle type” but look at the difference: 100% die when hit by SUVs compared to 54% of those hit by cars. And the injuries are different too:

At intermediate speeds (20 to 39 miles per hour) 30% of those hit by SUVs died, compared to 23% of those hit by cars. Where the IIHS gets weird is at high speeds; they say that “crashes at low speeds and high speeds tend to produce similar injury outcomes independent of striking vehicle type” but look at the difference: 100% die when hit by SUVs compared to 54% of those hit by cars. And the injuries are different too:

This IIHS study also didn’t take into account the fact that people driving SUVs and pickups tend to drive faster; evidently being so high off the road makes a difference in perception. According to another study, The effect of driver eye height on speed choice, lane-keeping, and car-following behavior, “when viewing the road from a high eye height, drivers drove faster, with more variability, and were less able to maintain a consistent position within the lane than when viewing the road from a low eye height…. drivers choose to drive faster when they view the road from an eye height that is representative of a large SUV compared to that of a small sports car.” This is one reason why I said goodbye to my Miata. The IIHS study concludes:

Despite the changes in vehicle design over the past two decades, SUVs remain disproportionately likely to injure pedestrians compared with cars. Interestingly, the danger that SUVs pose to pedestrians seems to be most pronounced in crashes where the striking vehicle was traveling faster than 19 mph The data suggest that crash characteristics tend to overpower vehicle characteristics for low-speed crashes. That is, low-speed crashes tend to be benign enough that pedestrians emerge with only minor injuries regardless of vehicle type. Crashes at faster speeds are where vehicle design differences begin to predict injury outcomes. 

Safety activists around the world will no doubt point to this as more evidence for Twenty is Plenty speed limiting campaigns.

Here comes the Bronco

So here we are in 2020, admiring the new Ford Bronco, designed for exciting, high-speed off-road driving, with “the toughness and smarts to help turn off-road novices into 4×4 pros.” It is introduced in a time of climate crisis, and in a time when people are demanding that the dramatic rise in the rate of deaths of people who walk or cycle be dealt with. Yet in the face of rising carbon emissions and rising death and injury counts, here comes the Bronco. Many call for regulation; I have been saying for years that they should Make SUVs and Light Trucks as Safe as Cars or Get Rid of Them. Aaron Gordon writes that “American automakers have long argued that regulations are an ineffective way to enact positive change, that the free market is the best way to produce progress.” But the fact that a Ford Bronco can be introduced in 2020 proves this to be a fantasy.

EV sales triple in Germany, disrupting market with 11% share

The Driven, 25/08/20

Germany – the home of the combustion engine – has now had its auto market “officially” disrupted by plug-in electric cars, which in July accounted for a record 11% of all car sales.

Auto sales in general are still depressed due to economic downturn amid Coronavirus in Germany, but increased purchasing incentives that have in some instances meant drivers can more or less get an electric car for free has seen a massive boost in electric vehicle (EV) sales.

According to Jose Pontes from EV Sales, battery electric car sales are up an impressive 182% compared to July 2019, with near 17,000 EVs sold. But it is the plug-in hybrid (PHEV) arena that really shone, with sales up by 485% compared to the same time the year before.

All in all, it equates to a tripling of sales from a year before, meaning that for the entire year, 8.5% of all new car sales in Germany were plug-in electric, with almost half of that (4%) accounted for by battery electric vehicles.

As this is a record for a usually slow July, Pontes notes that “we may have already reached the tipping point in Germany, where disruption is visible and the status quo is changed forever, so we could see this market reach the 10% plugin share already this year, which would mean 2021 would see this market surf the steepest part of the S-Curve during that whole year.”

The new sales record also underpins the observation made by auto analyst Matthias Schmidt, and as reported by The Driven earlier in August that European EV sales are now pushing past those of China, historically the leader of electric car sales in terms of market share.

Surprisingly, it is the Volkswagen e-Golf that remains at the top of battery-electric sales in Germany, despite the fact that the German carmaker is about to unleash its ID.3 electric hatches on the country, backed by a clever low-key marketing campaign that has involved VW CEO Herbert Diess swanning around the country in one.

However, with 2,633 registrations compared to the Renault Zoe’s 2,851, it took the back seat in second place for the month’s sales. Paired with sales in France, Renault sold more than 25,000 Zoes in the first half of 2020 – it is no wonder that with a paltry nine sold in Australia for the same period, the French carmaker decided to pull it locally.

The Tesla Model 3 performed well despite a very small number of registrations in the month of July, presumably due to a slow down in shipping due to the pandemic. With just 154 registered in the month of July, it stayed in the top 3 with 4,521 units.

Pontes says he thinks that September, typically a big month for the German auto industry, will show even better results, with a market share for plug-ins as high as 13%.

As the Volkswagen starts deliveries of the ID.3 and Tesla ramps up shipping as the quarter comes to an end, expect to see some serious EV push and shove.

Four new electric cars are now available for Australia – as grey imports

The Driven, 01/09/20

Four more electric vehicles are now available to Australian drivers, including the longer range Nissan Leaf, the Kia e-Soul, the Fiat 500e and Peugeot E208.

The long range Nissan Leaf e+ with 62kWh battery has been available overseas but, to date, the Japanese car maker has only seen fit to introduce the shorter range version with a 40kWh battery.

A release of the Kia e-Soul electric urban car was expected in 2020 along with its stablemate, the e-Niro, but both have been delayed with Kia citing lack of government support for electric vehicles.

Neither the Fiat e500 nor the Peugeot E208 have been eyed for the Australian market before – presumably taking cues from the dismal sales record of the Renault Zoe, now pulled due to lack of government support, which they would compete against.

But now, all four vehicles will be available to Australian drivers.

There’s a small catch – they are only available via the Special & Enthusiasts Vehicle (SEV) scheme, otherwise known as “grey imports”, which allows the import of vehicles that have been passed over by local car maker arms.

The four vehicles were added in August to the SEV list, which is currently under interim arrangements until new laws are passed.

As flagged by The Driven in November 2019, a change to SEV scheme laws means that there is only a 3 month wait required instead of the previous 18 months from when a vehicle to launched to when it can be added to the register if a car maker chooses not to import it to Australia.

A similar grey import scheme has driven Nissan Leaf sales in New Zealand, which has a fifth of the population of Australia but around the same number of electric cars.

The auto industry in Australia argues there are issues in using the SEV scheme to bring in electric cars that are not otherwise available here, citing safety and battery warranty issues.

But a recent report from Evenergi highlighted that there is an opportunity in Australia for an organisation to overcome these hurdles by providing servicing agreements and battery warranties, and other related services, thereby accelerating the adoption of electric vehicles in Australia.

It is understood that there is at least one long range Nissan Leaf e+ already being imported into the country, for Canberra couple Shane and Karen Maher.

VW received 20,000 e-up! electric car orders, rivaling gas-powered version

Elektrek 31 March 2020

Volkswagen claims to have received 20,000 e-up! electric car orders in Germany over the past 3 months – rivaling the demand for its gas-powered version.

Today, the German automaker shared a press release to boast about the demand for the e-up! electric car and the Passat GTE PHEV in Germany.

The latter is not very impressive since we are talking about every seventh Passat customer in Germany opting for the PHEV version.

However, when it comes to the former, the little e-up! (yes, there’s an exclamation point in the name), VW had some impressive data to share.

The e-up! is the electric version of the up! model series and now VW says that every other customer buying an up! model series vehicle in Germany is ordering the electric one.

The automaker claims to have received over 20,000 orders for the e-up! electric car in Germany this year:

“Even before the launch of the new ID.304 this summer, the demand for electric mobility has considerably increased in Germany: already every second order for the up! model series is for the fully electric version, around 20,000 orders have been received. […] Around 20,000 vehicles have been ordered already over the first three months of this year.”

The increased demand comes after VW updated the e-up! for the 2020 model year last year with a much longer range:

“The e-up! generates 61 kW (83 PS) has been launched in November 2019 and represents the new entry-level model to Volkswagen’s electric world. Compared with the predecessor, it offers a significantly increased range (up to 260 km in the WLTP cycle).”

VW attributes the increase in demand in Germany partly to the low cost of the vehicle after incentives in the market:

“The low running costs are the crucial purchasing argument: In Germany, its manufacturer suggested retail price (€21,975) is reduced by an environmental bonus (€6,570, both gross amounts) and the German insurance categories are favourable (liability category: 12, fully comprehensive category: 16). And no charges are incurred for road tax or engine oil changes for the e-up!.”

As we reported last week, the e-up! might not have long to live despite its success since VW says it’s working on entry-level ID.1 electric car that would replace the e-up!.

Electrek’s Take

This is really good news for VW. It’s going to help them reach their emission goals in Europe until the ID.3 is available.

They are just talking about Germany here, but the economics of the new e-up! are likely good in several other European markets.

I would note though that VW is only talking about orders and not deliveries. I doubt that they have the production capacity to deliver on the demand for the e-up! since they have only been planning for real EV volume production with the MEB platform.

Nonetheless, I’m curious to see how many of the new e-up! VW ends up selling this year.

Lithium Supply Fears Loom Over Electric Vehicle Happy Talk — Or Not, As The Case May Be

Cleantechnica 27 May 2020

Spring has sprung, which means it’s time for another round of guess how much lithium automakers will need to make enough lithium-ion batteries for the electric vehicle of the future, of which there are expected to be many millions on the road within the next ten years or so. Spoiler alert: we’re going to need a lot more lithium mines than we have right now. Or, maybe not.

The Clock Is Ticking On The Electric Vehicle Supply Chain of the Future

The big question is, should auto makers start investing in lithium mines to guarantee their future supply?

Lithium miners certainly seem to think so, because new lithium investors are becoming harder to find  these days. Investors are skittish in part because there is currently an oversupply of lithium and prices have dropped considerably from two years ago.

One example is Finland’s Keliber, which has laid claim to the first lithium mine in the EU. Now it is also claiming to be the first ever mining company to solicit investment from the auto industry.
Alternatively, Keliber is looking to nail down long term supply contracts with automakers.

As for the supply of lithium itself, miners have barely scratched the surface of the global lithium potential. The challenge is to match the mining timeline with the electric vehicle manufacturing timeline. It can take years to start up a new mining operation, and meantime automakers are already gearing up for an electric vehicle recovery after the COVID-19 downturn.

Consolidation in the mining industry and environmental damage are two other areas that will challenge automakers — and other lithium investors — in future years.

All Lithium Roads Lead to More Electric Vehicles

For a deeper dive into the investor angle, check out a new YouTube interview from our friends over at EV Stock Channel.

In the meantime, technology could become the final arbiter of how much lithium mining is needed, and how quickly, for the all-electric personal mobility market of 10 or 20 years from now.

One alternative supply source is evaporated salt brine. A movement is already afoot in that area to replace inefficient (and environmentally damaging) natural evaporation ponds with more efficient technology.
Piggybacking lithium recovery with geothermal energy is another avenue of approach. The US Energy Department’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory has been working on a reusable material that would extract lithium from concentrated brine at geothermal plants.

Not for nothing, but researchers estimate that there are 230 million tons of untapped lithium in ordinary seawater. Untapped it will probably remain in the near future, because the concentration of lithium in seawater is extremely low. However, researchers are already looking to the farther future when membrane extraction technology improves.

The Lithium-Free Electric Vehicle Of The Future

Then there’s the circular economy approach, in which lithium could be recovered from spent electric vehicle batteries.

That could be a long time coming, though. Electric vehicle batteries last a long time, and they could last even longer in a second life as stationary energy storage devices.

A whole ‘nother option is to come up with an electric vehicle battery that uses less lithium, or none at all.

After all, cobalt has been a mainstay of EV battery technology, and now it’s on the way out. Ditto for conventional lithium-ion technology, which is all of a sudden being replaced by solid state architecture and a lithium-metal formula.

So, could the electric vehicle of the future be powered by a lithium-free battery?

They will, if fans of sodium-ion batteries get their way. The sodium-ion field has a lot of catching up to do, but a new diagnostic approach developed by researchers at Argonne National Laboratory should help speed things up.

It also depends on what you mean by battery. After all, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles run on electricity, and they don’t use lithium. The passenger car area has been a challenge, but automakers are already beginning to diversify their approach to EV technology by investing in fuel cells for heavy duty vehicles (note: the environmental advantage depends on how quickly renewable hydrogen can replace fossil-sourced hydrogen).

In the category of farther future, flow battery technology could cross paths with hydrogen, if a new refillable version developed by a research team at Purdue University pans out.

Volkswagen CEO: We Need To Move Faster On Electric Vehicles Or We Will Follow Nokia’s Fate 16 January 2020

Volkswagen’s CEO, Herbert Diess, has reportedly expressed yet again the corporation’s powerful internal struggles regarding the transition to electric vehicles. Before jumping into his latest comments, though, I’d like to go back to what former Fiat Chrysler Automobiles CEO Sergio Marchionne made rather clear a few years ago: legacy automakers have to reinvent themselves in order to be true electric vehicle competitors. Many outsiders consider the shift from making fossil fuel vehicles to making electric vehicles as a simple transition, but it’s actually an existential crisis for large automakers.

As I’ve written before, legacy automakers are walking an extremely thin and difficult tightrope. On the one hand, if they don’t electrify fast enough, they’re dead. On the other hand, they have to invest an enormous amount of money to move from fossil powertrains to electric powertrains to remain at a similar production scale as they exist today, and they will certainly have to swallow stranded assets and sunk costs that will make their financials look a bit shabby for a while.

I think Diess has been making this point in a variety of ways in recent months — and years even — since he has to communicate to both investors and employees the difficulty of this transition and the potential for failure.

Volkswagen ID Crozz concept electric car

According to Reuters (h/t Steve Hamel), Diess today highlighted to reporters, “The big questions is: are we fast enough?” This focuses on my first point above about the tightrope they must walk. “If we continue at our current speed, it is going to be very tough,” Diess added, and he went into what some might term “CleanTechnica Tesla fanboy” territory by also noting that Volkswagen could end up going the route of Nokia if it goes too slowly.

This comes on the heals of an increase in Volkswagen and Volkswagen Group electric vehicle production targets. In the coming few years, Diess wants his expansive corporation to become the world’s #1 electric automaker. Some see the targets as still far too slow. Some see them as overly ambitious. The chance that they are just right is probably not something anyone at Volkswagen wants to think long about, as it’s very challenging to time a transition like this perfectly as a large incumbent. I personally think Volkswagen is moving in a good direction, and today’s comments make me think that even more.

One week ago today, I wrote the article, “The 2 Big Questions Regarding Volkswagen’s Future*.” The first matter discussed therein was autonomy, which is a topic for another day, but the second matter is one that I think Diess must spend a lot of time considering — the Osborne effect. I would sweat profusely if it was my job to transition Volkswagen Group in a way that rode the electrification wave beautifully to the shore. The Osborne effect is like a giant rock in the middle of the breaking wave. The best explanation to date that I’ve seen about this challenge in the automaker context is one written by Maarten Vinkhuyzen, so I highly recommend reading or rereading that essay. No one should assume Volkswagen has an easy solution to this challenge, and I think public acknowledgements of that by Diess himself are useful in bringing this discussion to the public and highlighting the uncertainty of the moment.

Again echoing CleanTechnica commenters who are often seen as radical, unrealistic souls, I’ll end with this line from Volkswagen’s global leader: “The era of the classic carmakers is over.”

I think it is appropriate to use the term “leader” for Diess. I think he is making tough decisions and saying difficult things in order to move his company forward. When the era of class carmakers is over, there is perhaps no greater industry challenge than remaining a major carmaker in the new era. We’ll see how Volkswagen Group does on this growing worldwide wave.

*Perhaps Diess read that one. My understanding is that it wouldn’t be the first CleanTechnica article he consumed with an open mind.