A major country is cutting its EV incentives for the second time in a year, gas prices are falling in Japan, and we have another driverless car crash. All that and more in The Morning Shift for December 15, 2021.
1st Gear: This Is The Second Cut In Nine Months
As much as today’s crop of electric cars are attractive and desirable, there are still a lot of government subsidies propping them up in nations around the world. This isn’t a bad thing, but it’s worth pointing out that it’s an unstable situation. The UK, for instance, just about halved its incentives over the course of 2021, as Bloomberg Green reports:
From Wednesday, drivers in Britain can expect grants of as much as 1,500 pounds ($1,987) on cars that cost less than 32,000 pounds, the Department for Transport said, with about 20 models continuing to receive subsidies. The change means the incentive has now been halved in the space of less than a year.
“Slashing the grants for electric vehicles once again is a blow to customers looking to make the switch,” said Mike Hawes, the SMMT’s chief executive officer. “We should be doubling down on incentives — other global markets are already doing so whereas we are cutting, expecting the industry to subsidize the transition.”
I worry that among all of the debate about America’s EV incentives, they could all dry up the moment a new administration takes office.
2nd Gear: Gas In Japan Falls For Fifth Straight Week, Is Still $5.50/Gal
I was charmed by this article noting that gas prices continue to tumble in Japan. It’s funny because prices are still well over five bucks a gallon, converting everything over. From The Japan Times:
The average retail price of regular gasoline in Japan fell for the fifth straight week, although it still remained at a high level, the industry ministry said Wednesday.
As of Monday, the price stood at ¥165.90 per liter, down ¥2.1 from a week earlier, while staying above ¥160 for the 11th straight week.
The fall reflected lower crude oil prices amid concerns over a drop in demand due to the spread of the omicron variant of the novel coronavirus.
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All of our complaints about gas getting expensive in the U.S. feel a little lacking in context. Owning a car is very, very, very heavily subsidized here in the States.
3rd Gear: Toyota Expects Record Production
Toyota has been in the news for, uh, showing off a bunch of design studies and yelling “they’re electric, we swear!” to the media. Meanwhile, Toyota is selling a hell of a lot of gas-burning cars, as Reuters reports:
Toyota said it plans to build 800,000 vehicles globally in January, a record for the month, as it ramps up production to make up for output lost to parts shortages.
“We will continue to maintain our production forecast of the 9-million-unit level” for the year to March 31, the company said in a press release on Wednesday.
Toyota had been constrained by Covid shutdowns in countries it outsources to, particularly Vietnam. Those restrictions have been easing as of late.
4th Gear: California Suspends Driverless Vehicle Test Permit After Crash
The hard-to-Google Pony.ai, a company based in Silicon Valley and Guangzhou, just got its driverless testing permit suspended in California, as The Verge reports:
Pony.ai was one of the few companies approved to test fully autonomous vehicles without safety drivers behind the steering wheel on public roads in California. The DMV has only issued permits to seven other companies, including major operators like Waymo and Cruise.
But the permit was suspended — and Pony’s name removed from the DMV’s list of permit holders — after a reported vehicle collision in Fremont, California on October 28th, the agency said in a statement. Pony has 10 Hyundai Kona vehicles registered under its driverless testing permit. The company is still authorized to test vehicles with a safety driver behind the steering wheel.
The permit was suspended after the company reported a crash to the DMV. (All AV permit holders are required to file reports after a collision.) According to the report, Pony’s vehicle was in autonomous mode, turning right onto Fremont Boulevard from Cushing Parkway when it “came into contact” with a center divider containing a traffic sign.
“The Pony.ai AV suffered moderate damage to the front of the vehicle and the undercarriage,” the report states. “There were no injuries and no other vehicles involved.”
This seems like a relatively minor wreck, but any driverless crash as an air of terror to it.
5th Gear: Please Enjoy This Air Travel Blogger Summarizing A 29-Year Campaign As A Failure
I am in awe of this longtime reporter for The Wall Street Journal declaring, “I’ve Tried to Make Travel Better for 20 Years. Mostly It’s Gotten Worse.” This guy has been writing about how bad air travel is since 2002 and is about to retire his column. His summary is that for all he’s complained, all he’s seen is continued decline:
When I started covering aviation, flights were expensive, delays were maddening and the coffee on Southwest Airlines tasted like brown water. For the past 20 years, the Middle Seat has endeavored to make travel better for readers, calling out problems and educating travelers on strategies and trends, airline and hotel operations, ticket pricing, frequent-flier programs, baggage, ventilation, piloting, air-traffic control and government oversight. Everything nose-to-tail.
And yet travel has gotten to be even more of a slog. We’re squeezed closer together on planes. Meals have disappeared for most (not that anyone’s too sad about airplane food). Tickets are more complicated; fees are everywhere and frequent-flier programs are far less rewarding.
This is my next-to-last Middle Seat column. I’m retiring from the Journal after 29 years. I wish I could say that travel has improved since we started the Middle Seat in January 2002. I’d even like to think that somehow, some way the Middle Seat did just a little something to push airlines and other travel companies into better service and more customer focus.
How many of us can look on our works, mightily, and despair that cars are bigger and heavier than ever, and manual transmissions continue to disappear?
Reverse: Venera 7 Lands On Venus, Becomes First Spacecraft To Soft Land On Another Planet And Transmit Back Data To Earth
On December 15, the Venera-7 lander separated from its cruise stage and plunged into the planet’s atmosphere on the dark side of the planet, which was facing Earth. To their horror, scientists on the ground discovered that due to malfunction of a mechanical switch on the probe, the spacecraft had lost the capability to transmit all but a single channel of data. “We were lucky, this switch stuck on a temperature reading,” Perminov remembers, “Temperature data allows you to estimate pressure too, because they are related.”
As Venera-7 descended into the Venusian atmosphere, it continued transmitting temperature data down to an altitude of around 10 meters. Then another disaster struck. At this point, the probe’s parachute was lost and the spacecraft plummeted toward the surface of Venus. The mission was seemingly over — the Russian deep-space control station in Crimea was receiving nothing but background noise from the emptiness of space. More stunning was the news a week later, when experts from the Moscow’s Institute of Radio Electronics told their colleagues from NPO Lavochkin that they had been able to discern Venera-7’s signal from the background radio noise recorded after the landing.
After deciphering a very weak signal, the scientists confirmed that for around 23 minutes after hitting the surface of another world, Venera-7, had continued transmitting temperature data. That was despite the fact it was laying on its side in darkness with its antennas pointed away from Earth.
The hardy spacecraft had delivered the first measurements conducted directly on the surface of another planet. The data confirmed what has already been speculated about the “weather” on Venus — the surface temperature was 237 to 246 degrees Celsius — enough to melt such metals as lead or zinc. The atmospheric pressure at the surface turned out to be around 93 atmospheres, comparable to an ocean depth of 800 meters on Earth.
Neutral: Tesla Or Dieselgate?
I was watching some journalists debate on Twitter if Tesla was more influential in pushing EVs toward the mainstream, or if the massive Dieselgate settlement pushing the auto giant VW into battery-electric cars was more influential. I’m inclined to say VW getting caught over its diesel cheating has been more impactful, but I’m not sure its pivot to EVs would have happened without Tesla in the first place. What do you think?