From Washington: Where's Donald Trump on Self-Driving Cars?

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Jan 30, 2017

WASHINGTON, DC—It’s known as the policy show, a chance for the automotive press to get a handle on where the government is going with regulations and the general direction of transportation policy. But at the 2017 Washington Auto Show the Trump people were a no-show, so it’s unclear where they’re going—though they’ve said the 54.5 mpg by 2025 fuel economy regulations could be in jeopardy.

In Washington, everybody was showing--and talking about--self-driving cars. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Everyone was talking about self-driving cars, and one of the last things the Obama Administration did, in September, was issue a set of flexible guidelines for them. And at the MobilityTalks 2.0 policy forum on Capitol Hill, there was general agreement that they’re a good start. “In the seven and a half years of my Presidency, self-driving cars have gone from a sc-fi fantasy to an emerging reality,” Obama said then. “But we have to get it right.”

The Capitol Hill panel, with Congresswoman Debbie Dingell second from right. Everyone wanted to know what the Trump Administration thinks. (Jim Motavalli photo)

It’s important that they do, because the regulations out of DC could either empower autonomy or really slow it down. Representative Debbie Dingell pointed this out when she noted, “The technology is moving so fast that often by the time we get [auto] regulations written, they’re already obsolete.”

She added, “Nobody knows where the Trump administration is on these issues. We do know the President is personally interested in this.” Maybe he is, but it will take time for him to be engaged on the subject, and for that reason most predictions say that Level 5 autonomy—sitting in the back while the car drives itself—is at least a decade down the road.

In the meantime, said Harry Lightsey, a former GM executive who now works at Global Public Policy, fully autonomous cars will be allowed only in specific areas, under controlled conditions, and operated by people responsible for the safe operation of the fleets.

Raj Rajkumar and his autonomous Cadillac. He's upfront about what his car can't do. (Jim Motavalli photo)

It’s not only automakers who are building autonomous cars. I talked to Raj Rajkumar, a Carnegie Mellon professor who, with the help of the National Science Foundation and his willing students, built his own Level 4 (or is it 5?) vehicle from a second-hand Cadillac SRX. He said it can operate autonomously most of the time, recognizes traffic lights, stops for pedestrians, follow bicycles, and more. It was the dirtiest car at the show—Rajkumar had just driven it from Pittsburgh.

I asked Rajkumar where his Caddy would not do well. “There’s a long list,’ he said. “If it comes on an accident scene and one lane is blocked—it’s not programmed to go around safely on the sidewalk or shoulder. It’s not able to yield for emergency vehicles. And a lot of snow covering the lane markings would be an issue.” Most of these things are problems for the big automakers, too.

The Ioniq comes in three flavors: electric (this one here), plug-in hybrid and hybrid. All intriguing. (Jim Motavalli photo)

On its stand, Hyundai showed its Ioniq trio of electric, plug-in hybrid and hybrid compact cars, which will debut with Level 2 autonomy on board. That’s going to be the norm for quite a while—cars will come with tech that takes over accelerating, braking and steering, but with an engaged driver ready to drive again if the system fails. That’s exactly what Joshua Brown didn’t do when he was killed after crashing his Tesla Model S into a truck.

“The Tesla owner was misusing the car’s Auto Pilot system,” said Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the Consumer Technology Association. “Human behavior is such that unless they’re specifically needed, people in self-driving cars are going to be sleeping or checking email—they may be unable to perform.” Given that, do we need to regulate driver attention? It’s all to be worked out.

Roger Foo and the safety smart Audi. But when the tech reaches the market, will there be drivers to warn? (Jim Motavalli photo)

There weren’t any new model introductions at the show, but we did visit the RFK Stadium and check out some driver-assist technologies being developed in conjunction with the Department of Transportation. These would be transmitted wirelessly to your car, and warn you: that a curve is coming up, and you’re driving too fast to handle it safely; that you’re approaching a green light, and that you have (or don’t have) enough time to get through it before it turns red; and that you’re headed for a work zone, and are driving too fast for it (or have to be ready for a lane closure).

We had a demonstration of it in a connected Audi with Roger Foo at the wheel, and it worked fine, but a question occurred to me. Isn’t it likely that by the time the technology is adopted by carmakers and actually reaches consumers, there will no longer be a driver to warn? It’s cool otherwise.

The Chrysler Pacifica is the first American plug-in hybrid minivan, with 33 miles of electric range. (Jim Motavalli photo)

So what was on the floor? It was good to see the 2017 Chrysler Pacifica minivan in hybrid form. It does 33 miles in electric mode, and 533 miles with the gas engine running, so 566 total. I wrote recently about the Prius Prime (also touted at this show) being a good deal because of rebates, and that’s also true of the Pacifica. The $41,995 vehicle has a battery (under the floor) that’s big enough to qualify for the full $7,500 federal tax credit, plus there may be state subsidies.

The Prius Prime comes loaded. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The deal leaves you asking, why would anyone in their right mind buy the non-hybrid version? Like the Prius Prime, the plug-in hybrid version comes loaded (with leather and other amenities).

Nobody at Toyota seemed to know what this cute Prius racer was all about. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Toyota’s stand had, in addition to the Prime and the Mirai (both of which I enjoyed driving around the convention center), a peculiar Prius racing car, complete with roll cage, single seat, fuel cell, and vented plexiglas windows. Nobody at Toyota seemed to know a thing about it.

This Ioniq racer reached 157 mph on the Bonneville Salt Flats. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The Ioniq hybrid gets 58 mpg combined (better than a Prius); the EV version achieves 124-mile range on batteries, and offers 133 MPGe; and the plug-in hybrid 27 miles electric. The cars come with a lifetime battery warranty. I enjoyed the Ioniq “race car” that recently reached 157.825 on the Bonneville Salt Flats.

Yes, it's a Toyota Camry,and it's made in Kentucky. The Camry, believe it or not, leads in American content--75 percent of the car was made here. (Jim Motavalli photo)

VW is continuing to tout its new Atlas, which the company was at pains to point out is made right here in the U.S.A., in Chattanooga, Tennessee. All the automakers touted their American-made cars for Donald Trump’s benefit, and Ford even went so far as to put origin stickers on its vehicles. We saw one foreign automaker removing a factory sticker because it had foreign writing on it.

This Toyota Tundra was made in U.S.A. too.  (Jim Motavalli photo)

The Connected Green Car of the Year is the Mercedes-Benz C350e; the Green SUV of the Year is the BMW X5 XDrive 40e (no prize for that mouthful of a name, though); and the Luxury Green Car of the Year is the Acura NSX.

Kia's Nitro gets 50 mpg, which isn't bad for a crossover. A plug-in hybrid version is coming later this year. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I saw a couple of new cars I liked. The 50-mpg Kia Niro Eco Hybrid is a very nice crossover SUV, sporting a 1.6-liter four- and six-speed automatic attached to a 1.56-kilowatt-hour lithium battery (the system producing 146 horsepower). The base FE starts at $22,800, but for $25,700 you can get a nicely equipped EX. The $29,750 Touring adds such amenities as a heated rear seats, and even a heated steering wheel. A plug-in hybrid version is coming in October.

Ford's Ecosport, based on the Fiesta platform, is coming for the 2018 model year. (Jim Motavalli photo)

In a similar vein is the all-new 2018 Ford Ecosport, a crossover built on the Fiesta platform.

That’s about it. A pretty good show all in all. Here’s a video about a “last-mile” autonomous delivery robot that’s already on the streets of Washington:

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