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Faraday Makes the Case for the Google Car

by Roger Lanctot | Jan 06, 2016

The U.S. government may not come to take our guns, but it might come to take our cars.  That was the thought coursing through my mind the morning after the Faraday Future press event.

It was a damp and misty night in Las Vegas and Faraday Future, the latest electric vehicle start-up (backed by renowned Chinese cloud service provider LeTV) was touting its impending arrival in the U.S. market. In the process of showing off its sleek FF01 concept car (above) and modular vehicle vision, the company unintentionally made a strong case for shared (not owned) Google-style pod cars.

It's the classic automotive industry story these days. Car companies show off amazing super-car concepts at flashy trade events to legions of attendees who have struggled with the help of stressed out transportation networks to be on hand.

Everyone claps and then struggles to get to the next presser oblivious to the contradiction. We applaud each new snazzy sports car introduction in the full knowledge that not only will few of us ever drive such cars, the likelihood that such cars will be legally driven in the manner for which they are clearly intended is slim to none.

But I get it. No one is going to get gussied up to go see the latest Toyota Camry. But the need for real, practical transportation alternatives is intense, particularly in Las Vegas where many roads are already "over capacity" in the language of local transportation officials and their consultants.

I am sure Faraday did not intend it to be this way, but the company's press conference at a parking lot across from the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas inadvertently and eloquently made the case for a transit network based on Google-style pod cars. The unusual location of the event, the address for which could not be found by some navigation systems, created logistical challenges which were evident from the trudging legions of journalists, analysts and VIPs, most nattily attired, wandering down Las Vegas Boulevard in the dark trying to locate the entrance to the event.

Faraday Future promises a driving future characterized by a vehicle platform dubbed the so-called VPA architecture capable of assuming many different shapes to enable a broad automotive product portfolio. As for in-cabin creature comforts, Faraday Future executives promise an adaptive and adaptable driving environment intended to engage and entertain driver and passengers alike.

The company also announced plans for enhanced safety systems and a "tablet on wheels" platform for content delivery and the communication of contextual information. Hardware was the primary focus of the press event though there were no details regarding the vehicle's system architecture, hardware or software.

The point of the press event was to establish Faraday Future's credibility and commitment to its cause and the speed of its execution. Approximately 18 months since its inception Faraday Future claims to have 750 employees and is weeks away from breaking ground on its $1B vehicle manufacturing facility in North Las Vegas.

The Faraday Future press event was the first vehicle-centric announcement at CES where automotive news is spilling onto the wire by the minute. Volkswagen is announcing its own aggressive EV plans in a keynote (two days after being sued by the U.S. government), General Motors is announcing a $500M investment in Lyft, Kia is launching its self-driving car plans, Toyota is doubling down on vehicle connectivity with multiple announcements and the list goes on.

Perhaps the most enigmatic news item preceding CES 2016 was Ford's rumored announcement of a tie-up with Google purportedly for the development of self-driving cars. The effort required to find and get to the Faraday Future press event highlighted the potential significance of such a partnership.

The surface transportation environment Monday night in Las Vegas was uncharacteristically passable. There was an eerie calm-before-the-storm quality to traffic conditions.

In spite of that ease of traffic movement, the Faraday Future press event was a challenge to locate since it was actually a large parking lot - and a lot surrounded by a long chain link fence at that. Taxis identified the location only after they had already driven by it - dropping some fares off at a gas station hundreds of feet down the road. This also meant there was no well-marked location for taxis to pick up fares after the event was over. The best option was probably the Deuce buses - for which a stop was located mid-block.

The Faraday Future vision of individual transportation is quintessentially American. The car will embody and become imbued with the personality and preferences of the driver. And what better place than Las Vegas to introduce this statement of personal mobility? Las Vegas - where you can drink for free AS LONG AS YOU are gambling and you can smoke ANYWHERE!  Oh, and lots of free parking.

But make no mistake the car takers are coming and the Faraday Future vision is under threat even before it is fully realized. Cities like Las Vegas have few options - as was made clear in the recently published Transportation Investment Business Plan from the Regional Transportation Commission for Southern Nevada.

The report emphasizes minor modifications to local infrastructure and greater coordination of commuting patterns of local businesses to combat the increasing traffic overload. But drivers all over the world well know the revolution sweeping metropolitan areas.

With each new congestion charge, red light camera, speed camera, bicycle lane, pedestrian-only zone, bridge/tunnel toll, parking fees, vehicle miles driven tax, Federal, state and local governments are waging a war on cars.  The age of the carrot has passed and drivers are increasingly confronted with the stick.  Governments are clearly discouraging driving.

As often happens, the harder the government tries to move populations in a particular direction the stronger is the pushback.  In fact, quite often government initiatives backfire.  While governments all over the world are pushing citizens to drive EVs with tax incentives and other garnishments (and promoting fuel efficiency), they are simultaneously undermining their highway funding models by eroding the gas tax revenue base.

As rigor mortis sets into the individualistic Las Vegas driving environment for the next four days during CES, attendees will be left to ponder the merits of a transportation system built around shared, self-driving cars.  Uber and Lyft, newly legal in Las Vegas, will provide some inkling of this future.

Maybe a Ford-Google tie up around self-driving cars makes sense if it enables the creation of a low-speed network of safely autonomously operated vehicles capable of being summoned from anywhere within the well-defined and mapped urban grid for delivering passengers to anywhere within that grid.  The new Mobility Training Center in Las Vegas, scheduled to open this week, could readily add a training module for self-driving cars to facilitate the movements of senior citizens and residents and visitors with disabilities.

I am sure that by the end of this week I'll be on board with the Google car vision.  It will be hard for cities to resist a subsidized Google-provided transit system enhancement intended as an alternative to car ownership.  Just don't take my BMW.

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