As the self-imposed deadline for the self-driving taxi service from General Motors Co.’s autonomous vehicle development unit looms this year, the San Francisco-based GM Cruise LLC has gone quiet.
Hype for Cruise’s potential built up in late 2017 and into 2018 as the former start-up laid the groundwork for a commercial launch of its autonomous technology. Increasingly, however, company leaders have said a launch of Cruise’s driverless taxi service would be “gated by safety,” a hedge that has been repeated since October when GM’s self-driving unit partnered with Honda Motor Co.
Meantime, the industry at large has started pulling back on some of its autonomous-vehicle optimism. A fatal accident involving one of Uber’s self-driving test vehicles spurred an industry-wide reassessment of how to best validate the complex technology required to make a car navigate public roads without the help of a driver. As investors and industry observers wait to see Cruise’s robo-taxi service in action, experts say the 2019 deadline is hardly a deal-breaker for the driverless-vehicle unit’s future.
“The real question is not whether Cruise is on track for 2019 or not — it’s whether GM has the stomach to gut this thing out to completion and do everything it’s really going to take to get there,” said Mike Ramsey, an automotive analyst for research firm Gartner Inc. “Does GM have the stomach to spend money — that they don’t have a ton of — and sacrifice areas that make money now to stick this out?”
GM is trying to prove as much. The company is executing a sweeping restructuring that includes stopping production at five North American plants and cutting 15 percent of its salaried workforce. The goal is to cut costs and redirect precious capital toward expensive autonomy, electrification and mobility efforts.
The rollout of the technology has always been guided by safety, a Cruise spokesman said, reiterating what GM and Cruise executives have said in recent months. Leaders also say the quiet period for Cruise is a result of the Silicon Valley workforce’s focus on getting the technology right.
GM is planning to spend roughly $1 billion on Cruise in 2019 after spending about $700 million last year. That includes hiring another 1,000 people over the next nine months. Cruise has also garnered some $5 billion in outside investments from Japan’s SoftBank Investment Advisers and Honda.
And executives say a change in leadership ushers in a new phase for the self-driving car unit. Former GM President Dan Ammann took over as CEO of Cruise effective Jan. 1. He replaced co-founder Kyle Vogt who moved into the role of chief technology officer. Ammann and Vogt say the shuffle allows both executives to focus on their strengths as Cruise moves toward deployment.
But Cruise’s original vision of a driverless taxi fleet of cars without steering wheels or pedals is still stuck in neutral more than a year after the company asked NHTSA permission to put the cars on public roads. It took NHTSA about 14 months to respond to the petition, advancing it to the public review stage last month.
GM’s long wait for a response is evidence that gaining the necessary federal approval is no small step, nor is it guaranteed. Federal safety regulation language revolves around human drivers and vehicles engineered to be piloted by a human driver — as opposed to artificial intelligence.
GM CEO Mary Barra has said the San Francisco team could proceed without federal approval of the steering wheel-free models by launching the service with the safety driver-piloted test vehicles already on public roads. But even if GM Cruise doesn’t start ferrying customers in one of its lidar-equipped Chevrolet Bolt EVs by the stroke of midnight on Dec. 31, experts seem to think the company will be forgiven.
“If GM were to potentially recast its projected time horizon for the launch and rollout of its GM Cruise unit’s service at a later time (i.e. significantly beyond 2020),” Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas wrote in a recent note, “we believe the stock market would be largely understanding.”
Sam Abuelsamid of Navigant Research, which recently ranked Cruise as one of the leaders in the autonomous vehicle race, said the company’s self-imposed 2019 deadline is largely arbitrary.
“If we don’t see a driverless taxi service from Cruise by the end of this year, it will not be the end of the world,” Abuelsamid said. “In the long term it’s better to delay and do this the right way — and Uber made the case last year for what happens when you rush this technology.”
Uber suspended all testing of self-driving cars last March after one of its autonomous test vehicles struck and killed a pedestrian in Arizona. The ride-hailing giant was rushing its autonomous vehicle development to keep up with leaders like GM’s Cruise and Alphabet’s Waymo LLC.
What followed was an industry-wide reckoning with autonomous-vehicle testing practices. Many companies took their driverless test vehicles off the roads while they revamped testing practices. Uber wouldn’t resume autonomous vehicle testing for another nine months. Waymo walked back promises to take human safety drivers out of its autonomous Chrysler Pacifica minivans. And GM appeared to quietly abandon plans to begin testing autonomous vehicles on the busy streets of New York City.
“This is normal,” Ramsey said. “None of what changed in the last year constitutes failure. This is just what happens when something that is really hard, but has a lot of promise, comes around. This is how new technologies get commercialized.”
Stocks making the biggest moves premarket: Lions Gate Entertainment, Legg Mason, Lyft & more
Lions Gate Entertainment — Lions Gate received an informal offer from CBS to buy its Starz cable network, according to sources who spoke to CNBC. No deal is imminent, however, sources say. CBS had made an offer for Starz before it was bought by Lions Gate in 2016.
Legg Mason — Legg Mason is near a settlement with activist hedge fund Trian Management, according to Dow Jones. People familiar with the matter say the money manager would gave Trian three or four seats on the board, and that a deal could be announced soon.
Lyft — Lyft was sued by a group of investors over its initial public offering. The suit said Lyft misled investors about its market position and labor matters, and that the company’s “false and misleading” statements inflated the company’s share price. The stock has lost 25% since going public.
Target — Target was upgraded to “equal-weight” from “underweight” at Morgan Stanley, which said its concerns about Target’s medium term profit margins now appear to be reflected in the stock’s price. The retailer is scheduled to report its quarterly earnings on Wednesday morning.
Tesla — An analyst report at Wedbush is raising concerns about underlying demand for the automaker’s Model 3 in the U.S. and said Tesla faces a considerable uphill climb in achieving its second half profitability goals.
T-Mobile US — T-Mobile is set to announce asset sales and other concessions to win approval for its deal to buy wireless competitor Sprint, according to a Bloomberg report.
Uber — Uber’s initial public offering was undermined by big investors, according to The Wall Street Journal. The paper said BlackRock, Tiger Global Management, and other pre-IPO investors passed on buying more shares in the offering, and that some tried to sell stock before or as part of the IPO.
GrubHub — GrubHub was sued by a Philadelphia restaurateur, seeking $5 million in damages and class action status for the suit. The New York Post reports the delivery service is accused of charging restaurants for phone calls even if no order was made. GrubHub said it disputes the claims and that the suit is without merit.
Boeing — Boeing won a wide-body jet order from Air New Zealand, according to people with direct knowledge of the matter who spoke to Reuters. That would end an 18-month competition for Air New Zealand’s business between Boeing and Airbus.
International Game Technology — The maker of slot machines and other gambling products reported adjusted quarterly profit of 12 cents per share, well short of the 23 cents a share consensus estimate. Revenue also came in below Wall Street forecasts. The company managed to return to profitability, however, after reporting a year-ago loss.
Canada Goose — The outerwear maker was rated “buy” in new coverage at HSBC, which thinks the brand has strong growth prospects and that the company is successfully shifting itself to a retail-driven focus.
Huawei responds to Android ban
Fresh off the sledgehammer blow of having its Android license revoked by Google in response to US government demands, Huawei has issued its first, limited response, which leaves more questions open than it answers. In a statement emailed to The Verge, Huawei underscores its contributions to the growth of Android globally — which most recently saw the company’s Android phone sales growing by double digits while every other leading smartphone vendor was shrinking or stagnant — and reassures current owners of Huawei and (subsidiary brand) Honor phones that they will continue to receive security updates and after-sales service. That promise also covers phones that are already shipped and in stock at stores globally, but no additional promises are made beyond that.
“Huawei has made substantial contributions to the development and growth of Android around the world. As one of Android’s key global partners, we have worked closely with their open-source platform to develop an ecosystem that has benefitted both users and the industry.
Huawei will continue to provide security updates and after-sales services to all existing Huawei and Honor smartphone and tablet products, covering those that have been sold and that are still in stock globally.
We will continue to build a safe and sustainable software ecosystem, in order to provide the best experience for all users globally.”
Google has already said that owners of Huawei phones will retain their access to the Play Store and continue being able to update their apps. The big thing that’s being written out of their future, however, are further Android OS updates from Google. To get those back, Huawei phone owners and fans will have to hope for a resolution in the US-China trade dispute, which has been the trigger for Huawei’s current blacklisting by the US government.
For its part, Huawei has been making preparations for an eventuality of losing access to software from US companies like Google and Microsoft, and it has been developing an in-house operating system alternative to Android. That may be what the company hints at in the final paragraph of its statement when it says it will “continue to build a safe and sustainable software ecosystem.” Sustainable being the key word.
Lilium Flies Full-Scale Prototype Of Powerful Electric Air Taxi
Lilium has gotten off the ground. The German air taxi startup has completed a hover test of a full-scale prototype of its ambitious electric aircraft, which is powered by tilting ducted fans designed to allow it to take off and land vertically while cruising with the efficiency and speed of a winged aircraft.
Lilium says its aircraft will be capable of carrying four passengers and their luggage plus a pilot 300 kilometers (186 miles), roughly the distance from New York to Boston, at a speed of 300 kilometers per hour, farther and faster than most of the scores of other electric air taxi startups.
The Munich-based company envisions knitting regions together more tightly with a transportation service it plans to run itself, enabling quick, affordable on-demand travel between major cities and ones that currently aren’t connected by airlines.
“How far can you get in an hour? We want to fundamentally change that for everybody,” Remo Gerber, Lilium’s chief commercial officer, told Forbes.
Lilium has raised $101 million in venture capital, making it one of the best-funded air taxi startups. However, it’s going to need a whole lot more money to execute its vision say analysts who rate the aircraft’s design as ambitious, but its business model even more so.
One thing Lilium seems to have in spades: raw power. The company, co-founded by four German engineering students in 2015, has developed a proprietary electric engine with just a single moving part that drives a small ducted fan. The aircraft has 36 of the engines mounted over the main wing and a forward canard that the companys says generate 2,000 horsepower—a “massive” amount, says Philip Ansell, an aerospace engineering professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who’s working on distributed electric propulsion systems. By comparison, a four-seat Robinson R44 helicopter has 245 horsepower.
Lilium may need all those horses to get off the ground with its envisioned passenger payload and a heavy rack of batteries, says Ansell—batteries have an energy density about 40 times lower than jet fuel, giving electric aircraft a poor power to weight ratio. Once the aircraft transitions to forward flight, the lift generated by its wings will allow it to use less than 10% of its horsepower, the company says. The aircraft will control its position in the air by varying power engine by engine, allowing the designers to dispense with a tail and steering flaps.
Lilium isn’t disclosing the aircraft’s weight or battery specs, making it hard to evaluate the company’s payload and range claims, which Ansell says are on the high end of what he considers possible.
Whether the aircraft is really a jet, as Lilium brands it, is debatable, but it lends a sexier image than the propulsion systems of its VTOL competitors, most of which are using propellers. Propellers can achieve faster speeds at the tip due to their greater length, generating more lift on takeoff, but one upside to Lilium’s smaller enclosed fans is lower noise. Gerber says the aircraft will be four to five times quieter than a helicopter, and won’t be audible to people on the ground when it’s flying at 1,000 feet. That will help the company’s chances of getting approval to operate in urban areas, where helicopters’ operations have been severely restricted due to their loudness.
The company plans to launch service in 2025, and it envisions taking advantage of existing heliports and helicopter flight corridors to start. Gerber says the company aims to offer intercity service for a price on par with airline airfares plus the cost of airport taxi service, which its passengers won’t have to pay since Lilium will fly from city center to city center.
Its pricing claims raise eyebrows among aviation analysts. An electric aircraft with fewer moving parts may have lower operating costs than a similarly sized conventional plane, but Richard Aboulafia of Teal Group says it’s a head-scratcher how a piloted aircraft with four passengers could match the economies of scale of a 150-seat airliner with two pilots. All urban air mobility startups have the same problem, he says: “It’s not clear how they’re significantly less expensive than helicopters,” which are beyond the budget of the average traveler.
That Lilium aims to operate its own transport service rather than sell its aircraft to others significantly increases the amount of capital it will need and delays the day when it might turn a profit, says Ernie Arvai of the consultancy AirInsight. Arvai estimates Lilium will need in the range of a half-billion dollars to get through certification to production of its fleet, and without an open market for its vehicles, it will have a harder time getting financing for them. Developing a network of landing pads and terminals for its transport service will cost even more.
“If you’re going to build and operate the planes yourself, that’s a high-risk strategy in my view,” Arvai says.
To this point Lilium has raised funds from an array of tech investors, including China’s Tencent and Atomico, the venture capital fund of the billionaire Skype co-founder Niklas Zennstrom.
Lilium flight-tested a two-seater version of the design in 2017, which validated its ability to shift from vertical to forward flight. Next up, Gerber says Lilium will build a final version of the aircraft that it will take through further flight testing to safety certification and production.
The company is working on autonomous control systems for the aircraft, but Gerber says its business model doesn’t depend on going pilotless.
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