Volkswagen’s OTA Future Of Car ‘Ownership’ Sounds Miserable
Your next Volkswagen is beginning to sound like a paradise of microtransactions, Detroit has a new plant, and Hyundai’s V8 is the latest to go to the big wrecking yard in the sky. All that and more in The Morning Shift for Friday, June 11, 2021.
1st Gear: Software Will Be King, Whether You Like It Or Not
The onslaught of over-the-air, paid services in cars is coming, even if just about any actual living human I’ve ever spoken to hates the idea. Some automakers — chiefly the German luxury ones — seem to be absolutely enamored with this concept, constantly reminding us at every turn that the nature of car ownership is changing, while cheekily winking to investors. Volkswagen felt compelled to make more noise about this subject yet again earlier this week, during an “Innovation Talk.” Per Automotive News:
“In the future, our customers will buy, lease, share or rent cars just for a weekend, and we can use software to provide them with whatever they need over the air,” VW brand’s sales chief Klaus Zellmer said. “The ID family has been designed for further development, with OTA updates to improve the software’s performance and tailor it to our customers’ needs.”
How convenient that car companies will find ways to charge us for what they think us consumers “need.” None of that sounds especially different than what other brands, like BMW, have hinted at. This part raises some flags, though:
Separately in an interview with Die Welt newspaper, Zellmer said VW could offer autonomous driving on a pay-per-use basis.
“We assume a price of around seven euros per hour. So if you do not want to drive yourself for three hours you can pay 21 euros to get it done,” Zellmer told the paper.
What kills me about the way Volkswagen, BMW and the like have approached this conversation is that there’s been absolutely zero regard for nuance. Spending $60,000 to own an ID.whatever only to then have to drop $8 an hour for autonomous driving would be a slap to the face. I could perhaps stomach it if the fee only applies when renting the car, but, again, Volkswagen doesn’t feel compelled to clarify these things. Nobody does, and the net result is rightly causing everyone to be increasingly skeptical of over-the-air services.
What should be a powerful, practical way to improve vehicles over time is being presented as a suite of new, exciting ways to nickel-and-dime customers for shit that was previously inherent in the cost of the car, or the lease or rental. I honestly do believe there’s a place for paid services, but only if they reduce the car’s price up front and only if manufacturers are honest about trying to strike a balance in terms of what’s fair and reasonable to consumers. That clearly hasn’t happened yet, and until it does, maybe you shouldn’t buy their cars.
2nd Gear: New Plant! New Plant!
There’s a new car factory in Detroit for the first time in three decades, and people are jazzed about it. From Reuters:
Stellantis opened the doors of its new $1.6 billion Mack Avenue assembly complex on Thursday, showing off parts of a 3 million square foot complex completed and launched into production largely during the pandemic.
The plant, which began building vehicles in March, now is operating three shifts a day, plant manager Michael Brieda said.
In a tight labor market, Brieda said the biggest challenge the plant had “was finding people capable of working in a manufacturing environment.” Job applicants were given dexterity tests as part of their interviews, he said.
About 2,100 Detroit City residents have been hired at the plant, the company said.
The Mack assembly plant is focused on production of the new Jeep Grand Cherokee L. Interestingly, plant manager Michael Breida told Reuters that Stellantis has had no issue sourcing semiconductors for the three-row SUV. However, assembly lines for other Stellantis vehicles have been shut down at times due to a lack of resources, so maybe it’s less that the company isn’t experiencing the shortage and more that it’s redirecting what little resources it has to the big new Jeep.
3rd Gear: Waymo Enters The Self-Driving Big Rig Game
Next time you’re in Texas and you see a fancy, blue big rig on the highway, ask yourself if it’s being actively driven by a human. Autonomous tractor trailer testing is all the rage right now, and Google’s Waymo is the latest to join the party — this time in a partnership with J.B. Hunt. From Automotive News:
The Google affiliate said Thursday it has partnered with trucking and logistics firm J.B. Hunt Transportation Services Inc. to carry freight along Interstate 45 between Houston and Fort Worth, Texas.
The service – which begins with a human safety driver behind the wheel – marks the first step of what both companies envision as a long-term partnership devoted to exploring the technical and operational aspects of running a fleet of self-driving Class 8 trucks.
Executives from Waymo and J.B. Hunt have collaborated on their plans for several months. Now, the initial runs between two distribution hubs for one of J.B. Hunt’s customers will augment their planning with real-world feedback. Waymo and J.B. Hunt did not disclose the customer.
“We’ve explored topics such as best practices for regular maintenance, what future facility layouts will look like, and which lanes are best suited for autonomous-driving technology,” Waymo said in a blog post.
Much like the test a startup named TuSimple recently conducted with a truck full of watermelons, the one Waymo will embark on is pretty simple, consisting predominantly of straight-shot highway driving on I-45. It’s a favorable scenario for self-driving trucks, though I wonder how long it’ll be until they’re prepared to handle more complex routes — if they ever do at all.
4th Gear: Ta-Ta, Tau
Hyundai’s Tau V8 is not long for this earth, according to a report from a South Korean publication by way of Australia’s CarAdvice. Currently, you can only get the 5.0-liter naturally-aspirated V8 in the Genesis G90. That’s after Kia dropped the motor from the K900’s repertoire earlier in the year. When it disappears, supposedly by the end of 2021, Hyundai’s top-line engine will be its twin-turbo V6.
In other words, when the next-generation G90 is introduced, the V6 will essentially replace the V8. The G80 already made the switch for 2021. It also looks jaw-droppingly good, which kind of eased the pain of another V8 being wiped from the planet.
5th Gear: They Don’t Want Us To Swap, So What Are We Gonna Do?
No EV maker wants to mess with battery swaps here in the States, so private companies are looking to fill the void as best they can. One San Francisco-based startup called Ample, interviewed by Bloomberg, is focusing on swaps for ride-hailing drivers, who spend all day on the road and can’t afford an hour or several to charge. The story opens with one such customer:
Instead of plugging in, the driver pulled into a swapping station near Mission Bay, where a set of robot arms lifted the car off of the ground, unloaded the depleted batteries and replaced them with a fully charged set. Twelve minutes later the Leaf pulled away with 32 kilowatt hours of energy, enough to drive about 130 miles, for a cost of $13.
A swap like this is a rare event in the U.S. The Leaf’s replaceable battery is made by Ample, one of the only companies offering a service that’s more popular in markets in Asia. In March, Ample announced that it had deployed five stations around the Bay Area. Nearly 100 Uber drivers are using them, the company says, making an average of 1.3 swaps per day.
It’s an insightful read on why battery swapping can be so valuable, but is also so hard to get right. The type of facility required to move, replace and store massive EV battery packs is expensive to build and run. (This is what happened to the last big American battery-swapping fleet.) Ample has supposedly mitigated this problem by developing modular packs that can be inserted into a tray in piecemeal fashion, so the robotic arms don’t every have to do any lifting that’s extremely strenuous. Even then, today’s carmakers certainly don’t build EVs with common battery architectures in mind, so a universal, once-size-fits-all approach seems like a losing battle:
While dealing with heavy batteries is a chore, the biggest challenge for swapping is getting automakers to change the way they build EVs. “Compatibility is a massive problem,” says Ryan Fisher, an analyst for electrified transport at BloombergNEF. “When you talk about doing it across multiple manufacturers, that becomes pretty complicated quite quickly.”
Props to Ample for trying, but battery swapping at scale is definitely going to require investment from the manufacturers themselves — and that’s not a step anyone appears ready to take yet. At least in this country.
Reverse: Motorsport’s Darkest Day
It was 66 years ago today, on July 11, 1955 that the worst tragedy in the history of motorsports unfolded at the 23rd 24 Hours Of Le Mans. Confusion as Mike Hawthorn’s Jaguar dove into the pitlane sent Pierre Levegh’s Mercedes and Lance Macklin’s Austin-Healey colliding. Levegh’s car launched into the crowd along the front straight — he died, as did 83 spectators, while 180 more bystanders were injured in the disaster.
A short animated film called Le Mans 1955 was made two years ago, and it carefully deals with the traumatic event. It’s only 15 minutes and I’ve never seen it before, so I’m going to take a moment to watch it today.
Neutral: Is Anyone Actually Looking Forward To Buying New Cars Anymore?
Usually I’m the one championing new tech to my friends and family. Yes, cars becoming increasingly software-controlled raises legitimate concerns about privacy, ownership and service — but they also offer legitimate conveniences many people want, too.
And yet, as carmakers increasingly discuss using software as nothing more than a revenue stream, I find my attitude beginning to change. I bought the car I drive now four years ago — I was never planning to get rid of it anytime soon, but I clutch it closer and closer every time a manufacturer publicly flirts with pay-as-you-go services. What about you? Are you hesitant about how new car ownership might look, say, five years from now?