This Week in the Future of Cars: The Kids Are on Fire – WIRED
More than a century after the dawn of the automobile age, cars are a young person’s game again. Sure, the grey-haired bigwigs have started to catch on to the big trends—electricity, automation, connectedness—but if this week’s news is any indication, it’s the youth leading the charge. From the 22-year-old laser genius to the self-driving pioneer who fell from grace to the college kids rethinking America’s favorite ride, the kids have had a wild seven days. Let’s get you caught up.
Stories you might have missed from WIRED this week
If you’ve followed the world of self-driving cars in the past decade chances are you’ve heard of Anthony Levandowski. He’s had a wild ride in recent years, building a self-driving motorcycle, helping launch Google’s autonomy project, and now, getting caught in the center of a barnstormer of a lawsuit between Google and Uber. With that trial just a few weeks away Mark Harris at WIRED’s sister publication Backchannel wrote a captivating profile of Levandowski—including his foundation of a religious organization dedicated to artificially intelligent robots.
Looking for a life that hasn’t been derailed by a vicious lawsuit and the specter of criminal charges? I spent some time with Austin Russell, the 22-year-old founder and CEO of Luminar. After dropping out of Stanford at 17, Russell spent five years rebuilding the lidar laser sensors widely considered critical for fully driverless, and just sold a bunch of the things to Toyota.
Ford is worried about the vitality of its sacred cash cow, the F-150, Jack reports. To stay relevant, it has turned to a crew of students to rethink its next generation of pickups for an age of autonomy and electricity. The design competition will run until December, and we’ll have more to report when we see what the kids think of the future.
Meanwhile, Ford’s established (i.e., professional) designers are learning new tricks, Eric Adams tells us. The automaker has started using Microsoft Hololens augmented reality goggles to make car creation faster, easier, and way cooler.
Across the pond, London is fighting back against the youthful revolutionaries, refusing to extend Uber’s license to operate on its streets. A legal battle looms, but whatever the outcome, Aarian says, London makes clear that old fogeys can erect their own barricades.
Across the other pond, Gogoro is expanding its service to Japan. This isn’t just about some cool electric scooters. I break down how the company thinks it can change way more than transportation.
Pivot of the Week
Old-timer Aston Martin has had a good couple of years, pumping out fresh offerings like the DB11 and Vanquish Volante S. This week, it introduced a different kind of vehicle. A submarine. It’s called Project Neptune, and it will be a certainly swanky, limited production submersible that definitely won’t be used by fleeing rich people when the FBI swarms their yachts.
News from elsewhere on the internet
More than two years after showing off the world’s first self-driving semi, Daimler has announced plans to test platooning tech on US roads, Reuters reports. Instead of one truck driving itself, platooning involves a fleet of vehicles driving very closely together with the help of automatic and connected controls, to cut wind resistance and save on fuel. Down the road, you could even leave just the one human in the lead vehicle, to add salary savings to the pile.
If the autonomous vehicle industry is a party, Lyft is that dude who somehow gets along with everybody. Uber’s arch-rival has already set up partnerships with General Motors, Waymo, Land Rover, and startups Nutonomy and Drive.ai. Now, per The New York Times, Ford is among the folks working to deploy robocars via Lyft’s ridehailing network.
A minor mystery in the auto world is why Toyota, after making the world’s first popular hybrid (the Prius), didn’t capitalize on its technological lead to surge into fully electric cars. Another riddle: Why Mazda is still tinkering with things like archaic, famously dirty rotary engine, and insists it can wring diesel-like power from gasoline engines. Whatever the answers, the Japanese automakers have now joined forces to catch up with the electric current. The Verge reports Toyota and Mazda, along with supplier Denso, have formed a new venture called EV Common Architecture Spirit Co Ltd., to develop battery-powered rides.
Wanna know the real reason automakers are ramping up their electric efforts? It’s because regulators around the world—prodded by revelations of Volkswagen’s dirty diesels and the Paris climate accord—are making plans to ban sales of gasoline- and diesel-powered cars. China, the world’s largest market, is leading that charge. This week, it ratcheted up its demands that automakers selling vehicles in the country produce electrics. “China has triggered the worldwide electric car festival,” one analyst told The Wall Street Journal.
In the Rearview
Essential stories from WIRED’s canon.
Interested in Anthony Levandowski’s glory days? Douglas McCray’s 2004 reporting from the first Darpa Grand Challenge introduces the engineer when he was just a Berkeley grad student with the wild idea of building a motorcycle that could drive itself across the desert.