Never Stop Driving #58: The Big Step

Two major jolts to the automotive revolution this past week: the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said it intends to allow more driverless cars on the road; and the latest sales reports indicate that EVs are finding fewer buyers than they were just a few months ago.

NHTSA acting chief Ann Carlson, speaking at a recent conference, revealed a plan called “AV Step” that would include provisions for not just more autonomous vehicles but also ones without a steering wheel. GM’s Cruise is reportedly ready to mass produce its driverless taxi, the six-passenger Cruise Origin, but is waiting for NHTSA’s blessing. The Origin does not have a steering wheel or pedals.

Self-Driving Cars san francisco
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

AV Step is not a done deal but could be as early as this fall. My hunch is that we’ve just seen another small advance in the march toward full autonomy. While I feel optimistic about this tech—get the idiots out from behind the wheel and leave the roads to those who want to drive—perhaps NHTSA should take a closer look at what’s happening in San Francisco. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that incidents with driverless cars are skyrocketing this year. That’s partly because there are more robotaxis driving more often, but even so the San Francisco Fire Department recorded 44 incidents of AVs driving into fire scenes, running over hoses, or blocking emergency vehicles. That’s a whole drum of “not good.” A group protesting the AV rollout is disrupting Cruise vehicles by placing a cone on the hood, which causes them to stop. I don’t want to demean the hard work of the Cruise folks, but that cone trick is pretty funny.

Via Twitter, Ford CEO Jim Farley announced that the company is dropping the price of its once-hot F-150 electric pickup called the Lightning. The base price is now a few bucks shy of 50 grand and the truck is eligible for the $7500 federal credit. Farley said that increased production capability at the factory enabled the price reduction, and the company aims to produce 150,000 per year. Market conditions are also perhaps a consideration, as Reuters reported that EV demand is softening and inventory levels are rising.

The EV price war kicked off by Tesla, however, seems to be serving Musk’s company just fine. The company delivered nearly half a million vehicles in the second quarter, a record. That result is even more impressive when one considers that one of the two volume models, the Model 3, is now six years old. Tesla of course holds a huge brand advantage—the cars are good, not great, but they’re considered a cut above, like BMW in the Nineties. Tesla also announced that it built the first Cybertruck, which just looks silly to me.

I think the macro trend is that our government’s policies and subsidies encourage automakers to build EVs with large and expensive battery packs that suit only a small percentage of buyers. The vast majority of new-car buyers can’t afford an EV, while the cost to develop electric vehicle technology is making even gas-powered new cars, which largely fund EV development, more expensive. The average age of the cars on our roads is now 12.5 years, a record.

There’s a massive bet playing out, a hope that once a critical mass of the supply chain is achieved, prices will fall enough that EVs can be made and sold at a profit. Billions will be spent but the outcome seems far from certain because all these changes are on the supply side of the auto business and not the demand.

Ever since I landed in Motown back in 1995 and started routinely having conversations with auto execs who were grappling with CAFE mandates that required companies to build small cars consumers largely didn’t want, I’ve had some sympathy for these imperfect car companies. The execs all whispered that, as long as gas remains relatively cheap, buyers prefer big cars. It’s not rocket science. I should mention here that I’m no EV hater and appreciate the tech: I replaced my two-stroke off-road motorcycle with an electric one. There was a stiff price premium, like 30 percent, but I wanted something quieter. I spent my vacation riding it on trails in New York state and just loved it.

Exploring the woods, quietly, on an electric machine. Larry Webster

Changing gears, we published a fantastic road-trip tale that might inspire you while we’re still in the driving season. I also started a podcast with Hagerty Price Guide publisher Dave Kinney called “Hagerty’s No Reserve” where we dissect recent sales and the car market. Give it a listen and let me know what you think. Finally, the Hagerty Drivers Foundation published this fascinating video on the history of the Chrysler Turbine car.

Go drive your car this weekend!

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    Appreciate your reasoned approach to EV’s. Government intervention or no, I suspect that the market will determine a winner, as it should. Thanks for not shoving EV’s down our collective throats like Motor Trend and Car & Driver.

    Buyer resistance to EVs is a real thing, and becomes more of a problem the larger the government’s sales mandates get. BEVs are the wrong solution for the mass market. They just don’t have enough flexibility for the way we all use vehicles and they place too large a demand on the electric grid. Had the government been more wise and mandated plug-in hybrids, we would be more successful, but in their blind zeal to “eliminate” reliance on fossil fuels they have attempted to mandate an impossible goal. So foolish. This will end badly. The best hope is that we’ll back away from the unrealistic goal of 100% BEVs. The more likely outcome is the Greens in power will double down and we’ll end up with whatever transportation system we can manage to eek out of the electric power we are actually able to generate and distribute. Welcome to the Third World.

    I think the EV / autonomous car issue is just another indication of how polarized our nation (world?) has become. I LOVE my Bolt for local trips but I also agree – it is not for everything / everyone. And EV’s and autonomous cars should NOT be forced on any of us. But we would also be wise to remember a lesson from our not so distant past. When Unleaded Gas was a new thing for those recently introduced cars with catalytic converters, it came at a higher price. So, of course, people hacked up their fuel fillers so they could keep using the cheaper leaded gas. If leaded gas had carried the price bump, maybe the change-over would have been easier! Same with EV’s. My Bolt costs me quite a bit less per mile to operate. I think the market will figure this out soon enough and those who realize that it works for most of their driving will switch. I just wish people who have NO CLUE weren’t so opinionated (YES, I have had a meathead Roll Coal over my Bolt more than once!). And since I also own a GMC Diesel for towing – I recognized it for what it was…

    Glad to see the public is finally waking up to the hidden costs of EVs. Heavier EVs causing increased tire wear, wear and tear on roads and the lost tax revenue from gas taxes. As for the electric trail bike an unnamed friend in the Army used electric bikes on deployment and they loved them. Obvious reasons, stealthy, maneuverable and recharged via solar panels anywhere. Since they operated mostly at night charging during daylight while in hide positions was a no brainer.

    It seems that most articles about self-driving vehicles are either for them or against them. I want both. I enjoy driving. There is nothing like the feeling of a top-down cruise on a warm night or the thrill of navigating back roads like the Tail of the Dragon. But for the most part, driving on an expressway is boring. And though most accidents occur on side roads, the ones at speeds are often more sever, so turning over the driving on a highway that regulates all vehicles sounds great. This would also help eliminate traffic jams where faster vehicles catch up to slower ones creating a clog. Take a nap, read a book, whatever, let the car do the mundane part. As the vehicle comes to the desired exit, let me take over.

    Larry, unfortunately, I think driverless vehicles have been on the rise for awhile now. It’s called distracted driving. So, add this factor into the computer controlled vehicles and the question has to asked…what do those of us who still value and enjoy driving going to drive? I now try and find sparsely traveled backroads when ever I can just to not have to concern myself with the plummeting lack of driver skill anymore. I’m sure I’m not alone in this sentiment based upon our constituency, but I feel like our numbers are also plummeting. 🙁

    Just what I want, A vehicle without a steering wheel. If it is controlled by a computer, someone, somewhere can hack into it. Sure, another bureaucrat wants more autonomous vehicles on the roads.

    I wish there was a way to develop cars that would hit the gas (er, motion maker) when the light turns green that would save time, money, frustration at stop lights when someone is looking at 19 inch screen, texting, daydreaming, combing their hair or putting on makeup. Nah, that would be too logical. It would be like taking the green flag in racing.

    Always good to read your column. Regarding the electrification of our market. The auto companies have politicians in their pockets. Or the other way around. I am not an EV hater, in fact, been in the supply chain for nearly 20 years. I am however a car guy. Just love everything to do with them. The push to electrify our nation needs to have more realistic thought, not just saying “Hey let’s try this”.

    Thanks Larry for your insightful articles. Two items here – first, if Fully Autonomous Vehicles (one’s w/o a steering wheel or pedals) actually becomes a thing, then I hope anyone who is injured riding in one (and you know it’s going to happen) doesn’t sue the manufacturer. Second, here in Texas owners are turning in their Lightnings and Mach-Es which are less than a year old and dealers are forced to resale them at nearly 50% of the original value. Hybrids are okay but, relying on fully electric drivetrains is just not going to work for the masses.

    Yeah, the liability thing when something goes wrong.. I have no clue how they’re going to handle. I hadn’t heard that about the Lightnings in Texas. I wonder why. I hear it’s a great truck.

    The thought of a driverless car horrifies me as it is one step closer to them just plain not letting a human operate a car. Unfortunately the younger generation and a lot more folks from my generation than I would expect do not appear to have much interest in the concept of operating their own vehicle which allows thins like this to get a foothold

    Back in the day, mimicking Steve McQueen and Malcolm Smith’s deft moves at the ISDT were once seemingly an incurable passion. Today, just when the best ever bikes and silent ones too are available for plying the trails, I have simply aged out. Interestingly the attraction to being out there still exerts an irrational pull!

    It’s probably why I am curious as to where in upstate NY you found your fun. Don’t need the exact location for obvious reasons. But a county name or two would suffice, if you’d care to say!

    Fully self driving cars will never be a reality. There’s no way they can account for all the variables (like a baseball rolling across the road). If they really want to increase safety they only have to do 3 things:
    1. Prevent cars from exceeding the speed limit (I never see this mentioned)
    2. Make them stop at red lights and stop signs
    3. Collision avoidance. Automatic braking, blind spot warnings, etc.

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