Talking Michigan Transportation

Insights from a top automotive industry reporter

December 07, 2023 Michigan Department of Transportation Season 5 Episode 166
Talking Michigan Transportation
Insights from a top automotive industry reporter
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

This week on the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast, Joann Muller, co-author of the Axios What’s Next newsletter, offers her thoughts on trends in the automotive industry, including electric vehicle (EV) sales and more. 

Three recent stories explored the rapidly changing landscape: 

  • How consumers are finding comfort in hybrid vehicles before fully adopting EVs. From the story: “Car buyers - not politicians, regulators or carmakers - will dictate the pace of the electric transition.”
  • What car dealers are telling the Biden administration about EV sales. 
  • What needs to be done to gain public trust in automated vehicles. 

Also discussed: how the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure program can help states build out charging networks to provide more certainty for travelers. This includes the $110 million awarded to Michigan for that work.

Jeff Cranson:

Hello, welcome to the Talking Michigan Transportation Podcast. I'm Jeff Cranson. Joann Muller is a veteran journalist based in Detroit. She writes now for Axios and is a co-author of the What's Next newsletter, well worth checking out if you don't already read it. She does some very good and interesting reporting on the auto industry and really all things mobility, whether it's innovations with electric vehicles or automated vehicles or even drones. She's writing about it. She spoke with me about her reporting and what she's seeing in trends in the auto industry with EV sales and charging and everything else related to that. It's a very interesting conversation. I hope you enjoy it. So, Joann Muller, good morning. I was very eager to talk to you. I've read you for quite some time in Axios and you're doing some very important reporting on what is still probably the most important industry in Michigan. When I see industry, I don't just mean the auto industry, I mean all things related to mobility. So thanks for coming on the podcast and talk to me first about your career trajectory and how one gets to be a co-author of the Axios What's Next newsletter.

Joann Muller:

Well, thanks, Jeff, for having me. So I've been at this cover in the transportation industry mostly autos for like 35 years or so. I first came to Detroit to work at the Free Press back in whatever that the late 80s, I guess and I came in as a general assignment business reporter. But you don't have to be in Detroit very long to realize that if you want to be on page one, you should cover the auto industry. So when an opening came up, I raised my hand and that's how I became an automotive writer. I have no particular I'm not a car guy type of person. I find it very interesting as a business and, like I said, you know the big stories and it has a giant impact on the country and even the world. So I worked at a few other places. I left Detroit for a little while after the newspaper strike you might remember that in the mid 90s I worked at the Boston Globe, but then I came back to Detroit. I worked for at Business Week for a few years and then spent a very large chunk of my career working for Forbes in Detroit. I was the Detroit bureau chief, covering automotive stuff, and then, in 2018, Axios called and you know this is a media company that was just a startup. At the time I didn't know a ton about them either, but they had a very unique way of writing stories, and you know, it was founded on this idea that media is broken and we need to reinvent it. People are too busy to spend a lot of time reading stories, so Axios' specialty is called smart brevity, which is, you know, telling stories in a very succinct way but with all the same reporting that it would have done before, and for me, it's truly the hardest type of writing I've ever done to write short but complete, and it's great. So I cover all things transportation. Now it's not just autos. I cover drones, I cover flying cars, EV, tolls, aviation, airlines, all that stuff. But of course, my heart is covering autos, and boy there's never been a better time to do it than right now.

Jeff Cranson:

That's for sure. It's interesting that you mentioned the smart brevity. A huge fan of Axios have been from the beginning. I followed Mike Allen and Jim Vanohy in their political days and was intrigued from the start when they launched this startup. And it reminds me when you talk about the most difficult kind of writing. You know the old joke if I had had more time I would have written less. Yeah, so it's hard to edit yourself and it's hard to fit in that format, but I think it's great. I feel like everything I consume I get something that makes me smarter out of including a lot of your work. And it's funny you came back to Michigan about the time. I came back to Michigan to work the Grand Rapids Press and the strike was going on then in Detroit and we played in a softball tournament. I don't know if you remember it was called the Michigan Editorial Softball Society. It was. The name was kind of a joke, but we played in Traverse City every year all the booth newspapers and the free press in the news, and I remember during the strike years that the teams suddenly from Detroit got very lean. So that's my memory of that period. So talk about when you say that it's never been a better time to be covering the industry. What fuels your interest in this mobility? Is it just like me? I guess maybe because nothing touches everybody the way this does.

Joann Muller:

Well, yeah, I mean, that's a great way to put it when you've covered an industry for 30 plus years it can feel a little bit like Groundhog Day. You go to the auto show and they introduce the next version of some car you already know or whatever. It's a little dull and can be like a grind, but really what's happening now is everything is being reinvented, and so you have these new power trains, electric and fuel cell and hydrogen All of this is brand new. And then you have autonomy and you have connected cars and shared mobility, and so, for the first time in 100 years, it's all being reinvented and everybody has to move, like you say, and so everybody has an opinion, and so I feel like there is no limit to the amount of interest people have in writing stories about how we move around.

Jeff Cranson:

Yeah, you want to talk about everybody having an opinion. Talk to any traffic safety engineer at MDOT or our social media coordinator, and there are a lot of experts out there, that's for sure. Every day yeah, but they are. So let's first talk about electric vehicles and what you're learning about trends in the marketplace. I know you had a post last week, november 28th. Headline car dealers tell bite customers aren't ready for electric cars. What did you learn from that reporting?

Joann Muller:

well, you know, so I. This is very interesting, as a dealer from Nebraska reached out to me and said hey, you know, I just thought you might be interested that there's a whole bunch of us but across all 50 states, not just Midwestern dealers that are saying you know, to President Biden, we're really worried about how fast he's pushing on electric vehicles and he's got some proposed emissions regulations out there, for I think it's a 2027 to 2032. That would be so, so strict. They would ramp up the emissions regulation so much that there's really no way to comply without Making more EVs and in fact like two-thirds of their, of their company's lineups would have to be electric. And they're saying you know what? We are just not seeing the interest from consumers, they're just not ready to make that leap. And you know they said we could sell anything. You know we are salespeople, we sell whatever we. You know we have that we can sell. But the problem is that these, these EVs are kind of sitting on the lot long, for a long time and even with the discounts and the federal tax incentives they're still not moving. They have, they're sitting in inventory the longest. And so they just wanted to get President Biden's attention because they said you know, nobody's talking up for the consumer here. We hear them, we represent them. Now, in fairness, you know car dealers also Are really good at selling gasoline cars and not so good at selling Electric vehicles, and you know it's a learning curve for everyone it's and in that includes the dealers and so I Think that it's just easier to sell a gasoline car because nobody thinks twice about it. So this is what's happening and you know there's I think there will be a lot of debate about these new emissions Standards, the proposal. Nothing's cast in stone yet and you know, if we have a different president in 2024, then that could all be rolled back dramatically.

Jeff Cranson:

That's true, a change in administration could make a big difference. But you know you raise a good point about the salespeople too. It's one thing to train your technicians on what the technology is and how Battery powered car differs from an ice vehicle, and they've got to learn all kinds of new things and ways to fix things. But I guess a salesperson has to learn how to answer the questions a consumer is going to ask about the car and how it run right and yeah, and you know I don't want to Diss on car dealers, but frankly, there's just not enough education out there yet.

Joann Muller:

And the, the car companies, the manufacturers, tell us oh, we've got all this training and we're working really hard to get our dealers up to speed. But In fact, so the matter is, if you, as a consumer, walk into a car dealership, there's a lot of questions you're gonna have and you probably won't get all of your answers From the salesperson on the floor. So that's you know that's a hurdle that shouldn't be overlooked. This education thing is massive.

Jeff Cranson:

Well, range anxiety is a is a real concern and I think that's why what, what they're hearing, what those dealers are telling you, that people are coming in saying you know I'm a little Electric vehicle curious but you know I don't know that, based on my commute or what I like to do, that I'd have the charging infrastructure I need. That's in part why, as part of the Inflation reduction act, there was a national electric vehicle infrastructure, what we call Nevi component to that. Michigan gets a hundred and ten million dollars and the idea, ultimately, is to have, you know, some kind of charging infrastructure within 50 miles you know every every 50 miles, and it routes across Michigan and other states. Do you feel like that'll start to make a difference in people's confidence?

Joann Muller:

Well, funny, you should ask about that because I am currently researching a story on that and it's been more than two years since that money was set aside five billion dollars for the Nevi program. You know how many Stations have opened so far?

Jeff Cranson:

I know I can count them on one hand.

Joann Muller:

Maybe on one fist, because there are none. The first one is going to open soon in Ohio. Ohio's been one of the states that's been quickest out of the gate. I know in Michigan we don't love Ohio very much, but they've done a good job. But this program, you know, like as with many government programs, there's a lot of hurdles and steps to go through, and so will it make a difference, for sure, but it's not making a difference yet because these stations aren't there Now. I will add also, though, that that's just one. You know, one portion of the charging infrastructure that we need. Private companies are doing a lot, both the independent charging networks, but also the manufacturers are partnering with convenience stores and things like that. Like, general Motors has a big partnership with pilot flying, j truck stops and EV Go one of the charging networks is part of that, and so they've got several thousand stations they're going to put in. The other thing that's really interesting is that seven car makers have come together to form a like a joint venture. Among them, they're going to create a new company and that is going to build 30,000 chargers over the next few years. So you know, the promises are there, but you can't blame consumers for saying you know what, I'm just going to wait till I see those chargers before I take the plunge. I mean, you talk about range anxiety and I think it's a little bit more nuanced. It's more about charging anxiety. Like people for the everyday lives understand they can drive around and you know 40, 50, 60 miles, run all their errands, go to work, whatever, come back to their home, plug their car in, assuming they have a home charger. Now, obviously that doesn't work for everyone and that's a different topic, but that part is totally manageable. I have a charger in my own garage and I can come home and charge the EV at night. It's no problem. But it's those road trips that we make and we don't make that many of them. Think about your own life, like you don't go on a road trip that often, maybe a few times a year or something but you just want the confidence to know that if you did go on a road trip there would be a charger every 50 miles and I think that's more of a security blanket. That Neve program is about sort of a security blanket to just make people feel like they are not going to be stranded somewhere.

Jeff Cranson:

Yeah, no, that makes perfect sense, and I think, when you talk about your home, part of that solving that charging gap is being able to outfit your home, and some of us are going to find out that if we want to do the level of charger that we really like for fast charging, we might not have the electric service in our current box, and that probably needs to be incentivized too, doesn't it?

Joann Muller:

Yeah, there are some, that's true. There are some available incentives here and there on home chargers. Dte has a has a rebate program. You can get $500 back on a charger, but you still have to have the electrical work done. You know, I when I had mine installed. I have a detached garage. Luckily the previous owner of my home had already upgraded the electrical circuit. So because otherwise I would have had to pay an electrician to come in and dig a trench from my home box out to the garage and that would have cost me several thousand dollars. As it was, it cost me about 800 to just do some wiring and some upgrade and to get the plug itself, and then the charger was another 600 bucks. So you know it certainly adds up. Some car makers are throwing in a charger for free when you buy the car, which is kind of nice. It's like free floor mats. Now you get a free, free charger. But the electrical work is very individualized and it depends on what your own setup is at your home.

Jeff Cranson:

Yeah, and I think that that goes to the point of the triple bottom line, that there are a lot of people that might want to do this because they care about the planet and the carbon footprint, but that alone is going to make for total adoption. It's going to. It's going to require a financial incentive, I think, for a lot of people. So and I'm not asking you to weigh in on that from a public policy standpoint, you had some reporting just yesterday on how hybrids are doing now and people are willing to dip their toe. You know they're, they're even curious, but they're not quite there. But you know, hybrids, which have been around for a long time, are maybe turning out to be the the, the bridge in between. Is that kind of how you conclude things?

Joann Muller:

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, you know it's it's. Hybrids are a little bit stress free, in the sense that you can drive around on electricity when you're in your in your neighborhood or at slow speeds or whatever, but you're going to have that gas, but it's always a very efficient motor engine and you're you know so your gas mileage can be really fantastic. I had get this. I had was driving the new Toyota Prius, which, of course, was the very first hybrid that was successful here in the US and it's gone through a number of iterations. The new one is really quite, quite beautiful surprisingly for a Prius but it's really sharp looking car. Anyways, I drove this is a regular hybrid, not a plug in hybrid I was driving it up and down the mountains of western North Carolina this fall and I was getting fuel economy about 65 miles per gallon. I was very impressed by. You know just how efficient it was. Of course, when you're coming down the how the hill on the other side, you're capturing energy because it has a lot of regenerative braking, and that's one of the great things about EVs and hybrids is that you know they try to be efficient in the use of the energy. Anyway, so hybrids are the companies that are doing hybrids tend to be Toyota, honda, ford that are are selling the most of them, toyota especially. About half their lineup is and same with Honda. Actually about half their vehicles that they offer hybrids are actually hybrids. The other half is gasoline. So, for instance, a Honda CRV, 50% are hybrid, 50% are gasoline. General Motors was all in on EVs and it's facing a lot of questions now about whether they're going to bring out some hybrids to help sort of soften that transition. Because GM's problem is it's not just about demand, it's that they've had trouble getting their EVs produced. They've had some battery production problems and that has delayed their new EV lineup, and so I think there's a lot of questions about GM. They say they're still fully committed to EVs, but I wonder if there will be some more hybrids in the meantime to bring the customer along a little more gradually. That is certainly what Ford has said. They're going to quadruple the number of hybrids they offer, and I think that's very telling.

Jeff Cranson:

Stay with us. We'll have more on the other side of this important message.

MDOT Message:

The Michigan Department of Transportation reminds you that when a vehicle collides with another vehicle, person or other object, it is a crash, not an accident. By reducing human error, we can prevent crashes and rebuild Michigan roads safely.

Jeff Cranson:

So would hybrids either plug in or traditional hybrid meet that 2035 standard that Mary Barra is talking about?

Joann Muller:

No, I think, as she says we're going to be emission free, I think she still expects them to be virtually 100% electric by 2035. I don't think that will ever happen. Actually, my own opinion, I think that there will be people who still want to drive a gasoline truck or for different reasons. So I think there will be some internal combustion engines, but I think there'll be like 10 or 20% of the lineup by 2035. But I think the question is how do we get from here to there? And it's very hard to force people to buy a car they don't want. The price is high, so you can offer some incentives and discounts and so forth, but you still have anxiety and it's just a different experience. You have to think more. Nobody thinks about filling up their car. They might say I'm going somewhere, I'll stop on the way and fill up the tank and five minutes later I'm on my way. It doesn't interrupt your plans. But if you are having to plan charging now, you've got to think about when's my 30 or 40 minute window that I could do that If you're at a charger away from your home, and that is an important thing to think about. I was just thinking about this today. I was late to my niece's baby shower because I forgot to charge the car and I couldn't get there unless I did. So you know you can really that can have an impact on your life. No one likes to arrive late at a baby shower.

Jeff Cranson:

Yeah, no, I think you raise a really good point that we have to plan our day better, plan our trips better, and you know that's okay as long as you know that when you make the purchase right, you build that into your schedule.

Joann Muller:

Yeah, but the average person yeah, I don't think people are ready to do that yet, you know, I mean, I want a one for one transition. I'm all for saving the environment and protecting our climate, but I don't want to be inconvenienced about it. And so give me a one for one swap and I'll be happy to do it. You know, same price, same time, same convenience, sure, but we're not there yet. And so the mainstream buyer and think about this too people who only have families that only have one car they don't have the luxury of taking a different car if their EB won't make it. They have to be able to charge and have this worked into their life, and it's a lot harder than I think policymakers or automakers are giving credit for. I really think that consumer is forgotten here.

Jeff Cranson:

You know, just yesterday Rick Pluta, a friend of mine who works for the Michigan Public Radio Network and he's got an EB, and he made that exact point that he couldn't if they didn't have a two car household he couldn't do it. So you're absolutely right. Let's talk about the other Vs, the AVs. You know, a few years back Michigan and MDOT especially became national leaders in adopting legislation to allow for operating automated vehicles and I say automated as opposed to autonomous, because we're a long way from totally autonomous On the public roads. The former MDOT director, kirk Steyl, testified before congressional committees, participated with NHTSA, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and other federal agencies In all kinds of conversations about the safety imperative behind leveraging the technology, because we want to remove the cause of crashes, and the cause of crashes is human error, as much as some people might not want to admit that. So you had another post focusing on AVs and how could they gain the public trust? Could you talk about what you learned in that report?

Joann Muller:

Well, yeah, so you know, the big topic in the autonomous vehicle space right now is the problems that General Motors owned Cruze is having companies based out in San Francisco, but they had a kind of a pretty awful accident recently that caused them to pull all of their vehicles off the road, even the ones that are being tested by humans. And so there's this moment right now where we're kind of figuring out wait a minute, what is it going to take? Can these autonomous vehicles actually do what they say they can do, and how will we get the public to trust them? And, frankly, cruze has not done itself any favors here. There's been quite a bit of controversy about how transparent they've been with the regulators in California, who have accused them of withholding some information or twisting the facts, etc. This is why GM has rushed in and put some executives in charge of Cruze and they're trying to restore that relationship and that trust. But for the public I think you know and regulators, there needs to be more transparency, and the problem is that this, you know, nobody came and asked you or me whether we wanted these to share the road with these vehicles, right? So we are sort of pawns in this public experiment. Certainly, the lady who got hit by a human driven car and then run over by a Cruze Robo taxi was a victim of a technology that she, you know she had nothing to do with. She was not volunteering to be in this experiment. So we've got to check all of this. Take a moment here and say, all right, what is it that we're trying to do, and how transparent should we be? And the fact of the matter is, these car developers, these Robo taxi developers, have so much data that they collect every day from their vehicles that are out there either driving providing service as in the case of Waymo, which is owned by Google, or other companies that are still in the test phase and this data, you know, they learn a lot to, and they use that data to improve their technology, but they don't share that data with the public entities or the regulators. And so one of the things that a lot of people are saying is there needs to be more of that data sharing. It's not because you're trying to put blame on somebody, right. It's that you're trying to make the technology better and figuring out where this technology can be trusted and maybe where it needs more work. So I'm very interested to see where the autonomous vehicle industry goes from here, because one company's problems can reverberate for all in the industry, and we've seen that before. You may recall, there was a pedestrian who was struck and killed by an Uber test driving vehicle in Phoenix back in 2018. And every company ended up taking their vehicles off the road for more than a year while they kind of reassessed their own technology as well as some of the rules around it. So I think this is a similar moment, although nobody else is taking their cars off the road other than Cruz.

Jeff Cranson:

Well, and that says something right there about how we've evolved in our thinking and not overreacting, right.

Joann Muller:

Right, right, and I think that Cruz's technology is really quite good. I want to be clear about that. They've accomplished some amazing things and they have been neck and neck with Waymo. But recently, like over the summer, all of a sudden Waymo started accelerating its rollout very quickly to a whole bunch of cities and they but at the same time they started having run-ins with fire trucks and first responders. There was a famous story where a Cruz vehicle got stuck in wet cement because it wandered into a construction zone. I mean, these are things that should not be happening. And it tells you okay, it's time to slow down, so we'll see what else happens.

Jeff Cranson:

I think that's true and I think it's also important to have some sense of history, which increasingly it seems like and I know this sounds curmudgeonly, but it seems like we in the US don't seem to have anymore. I mean, think about the earliest days of the combustible engine, the horseless carriage and what was going on then and trying to interact with people on bikes and walkers, and people were getting mowed down, but it didn't stop the industry from moving forward because there was going to be an imperative. And think about the idea at the time that my horses are much more reliable than that car, so I'm going to stick with my horses. I mean, all those things had to evolve.

Joann Muller:

Yeah, and I think we will. Cruz is suggesting they're waiting for some reports from internal investigations and stuff like that to make any announcements, but they're indicating that they're going to come back in just one city and really just nail it first, make sure that they can re-earn the trust of the community and the regulators and so forth and then only then, will they begin to expand again. So I don't know. There's still a lot of work happening right here in Michigan. Over there at Michigan Central Ford they're continuing to work Now. Ford's approach now is let's start with assisted driving technology and move up from there. Ford pulled out of full autonomy. They had an investment in a company called Argo and they just decided that was not where they wanted to put their money because they felt like it's still a long ways away and we could still get a ton of safety benefits just from using more assisted driving technology. And I think that is a very good lesson that driving is getting safer if we trust the systems that are on our cars and don't shut them off, you're lane keeping assist and things like that can be really helpful. And automatic emergency braking those kinds of things can really save lives, and the more they get into vehicles. I think we'll see those fatality numbers start to drop.

Jeff Cranson:

Yeah, I've heard from a number of people that maybe were a little suspect at first because they had adaptive cruise control, for instance, and now they say they couldn't live without it. And I know myself because I've had it for a while and when I drive a car that doesn't you know you miss it Absolutely.

Joann Muller:

I agree.

Jeff Cranson:

Well, joanne, thank you so much for taking time to talk about all these things. I think I'll definitely link in the show notes to your post about the hybrids, because I think you're right, a lot of people will be surprised if they haven't seen an image of the new Prius yet. It is pretty streamlined and very cool. So, thank you for everything you've shared with us, and we'll talk some more later, because I know that innovations are going to continue to happen in this industry. Well, thank you, jeff, good to be with you. I'd like to thank you once more for tuning in to Talking Michigan Transportation. You can find show notes and more on Apple Podcasts or Buzzsprout. I also want to acknowledge the talents of people who help make this a reality each week, starting with Randy Debbler, who skillfully edits the audio, jesse Ball, who proves the content, courtney Bates, who posts the podcast of various platforms, and Jackie Salinas, who transcribes the audio to make it accessible to all.

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