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Joseph White
Global Automotive Correspondent

Greetings from the Motor City!

Today, bad news on U.S. highway fatalities challenges automakers and regulators alike, Mercedes bets on a battery breakthrough and vehicle inventories are rising.

I will be away Friday, and Auto File will take the day off too. I’ll be back on Monday. A reminder that I will be attending and moderating interviews at the Reuters Events Automotive Retail 2022 conference in Las Vegas, June 1-2. You are invited.

Here we go -

U.S. highway deaths soar

The number of people killed on U.S. roads jumped to the highest level in 16 years in 2021, after the largest single-year increase in highway deaths ever recorded by the U.S. Transportation Department.

There was no bright spot in the DOT’s report. It was not one type of crash or class of victim that caused the 10.5% surge in deaths to a total of 42,915 people. The problems ran across the board, as the DOT release stated:

- Fatalities in multi-vehicle crashes up 16%
- Fatalities on urban roads up 16%
- Fatalities among drivers 65 and older up 14%
- Pedestrian fatalities up 13%
- Fatalities in crashes involving at least one large truck up 13%
- Daytime fatalities up 11%
- Motorcyclist fatalities up 9%
- Bicyclist fatalities up 5%
- Fatalities in speeding-related crashes up 5%
- Fatalities in police-reported, alcohol-involvement crashes up 5%

The deaths per miles traveled dipped in 2021 compared to 2020. But you have to go back to 2007 to get a higher death rate per miles traveled than the rates for 2020 and 2021.

Biden Administration officials Tuesday pointed to billions set aside in the infrastructure package to fund efforts at the state and local levels to reduce crashes and improve roadways.

The statistics point to even tougher challenges dealing with human behavior. Deaths attributable to speeding, drinking and refusing to wear seatbelts have all increased during the pandemic, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said in its report on the numbers.

For automakers, the numbers present a discouraging paradox. The number of U.S. highway fatalities has been on the rise since 2010, despite increasing deployment of safety technology such as anti-rollover systems, blind spot collision warning systems and automatic emergency braking systems, or AEB, designed to prevent high-speed, rear-end crashes.

The resurgence in highway fatalities is being called a public health crisis. But the technology presented as part of a solution to that crisis turns out to be inadequate, or too easy for individuals to bypass.

Auto manufacturers have come under pressure in the past to do more to make vehicles less aggressive to pedestrians, adopt technology to disable a vehicle when the driver is drunk or require passengers to be buckled up. Those discussions will get new life after the latest grim statistics.
The Mercedes G-Class and a famous fan.
Heavy SUV, lighter battery
Mercedes-Benz said it will deploy a new, lighter weight, longer range battery in an electric version of its blocky G-Class SUV, using technology developed by Sila Nanotechnologies.

Sila, founded by former Tesla executive Gene Berdichevsky and Georgia State University materials science professor Gleb Yushin, has designed a silicon anode that replaces the graphite anode commonly used. Mercedes said silicon anode batteries can be 20-40% more energy dense - an advantage that can be used to increase range, or reduce battery weight, or both.

Bonus point: Replacing graphite anode material cuts reliance on China.

China reconsiders EV subsidies, again
The Chinese government and automakers are discussing ways to extend tax subsidies to encourage consumers to buy electric vehicles. China once planned to phase out EV purchase subsidies in 2020, but extended them to support auto sector jobs during the pandemic. The pandemic is still a drag on the auto industry, although growth for electric vehicles has been outpacing combustion models. One idea on the table: Raise purchase taxes on EVs to 5% from zero currently, rather than jumping to a 10% tax in 2023 as currently planned.

Did somebody say inventory?
Stocks of unsold vehicles are starting to rise, according to U.S. Commerce Department data.

Let’s not get too excited. Wards Intelligence says car and light truck inventories in April were still 41% below year-ago levels. Automotive News said U.S. Ford dealers had 36 days’ supply of vehicles as of May 1, down from 45 days on April 1. That’s a little more than half what used to be considered normal for the U.S. industry.

What “normal” inventory targets will be for the Detroit brands going forward is one of the hot discussions in the Motor City. The old targets of 60-65 days’ supply - honored mostly in the breach back when supply routinely exceeded demand - are almost certainly out, executives say. What lower days’ supply target dealers and manufacturers will settle on won’t be clear until that day when production is not constrained by busted supply chains.

Hackers pick Bluetooth locks
Cybersecurity researchers at UK cybersecurity research firm NCC Group said they found a way to pick the Bluetooth-enabled locks on Tesla cars, exploiting a weakness that could be endemic to Bluetooth Low Energy devices including residential locks.
From the Musk Desk
Here’s the daily roundup from the World Of Elon Musk:

The Tesla Cybertruck does not exist yet as a real product. It’s a prototype - albeit one that along with Rivian’s R1T propelled Ford and General Motors to launch their real electric trucks on war-time mobilization speed.

Still, Tesla said it won’t accept more orders for the Cybertruck from outside the United States, Canada or Mexico. Elon Musk said the company has more orders than it could fill in three years of production - which hasn’t begun and is not expected to start until next year at the earliest.

Meanwhile, the war between Musk and Twitter is taking more weird turns.

Musk will hold another artificial intelligence job fair, branded as “Tesla AI Day #2” on Aug. 19. Step right up!

Two steps forward for autonomous vehicles
This has been a good week so far for autonomous vehicles. Uber said it is launching two tests of using robo-vehicles to deliver food in California. One will use autonomous cars developed by Motional, a JV of Hyundai and Aptiv. The other will use cartoonishly cute sidewalk robots - aka hot boxes on wheels - developed by Serve Robotics.

Separately, autonomous driving company said it is testing driverless ride services in Miami and Austin, starting with trips for employees only. Argo has partnerships with Lyft and Walmart to develop automated people-hauling and goods-fetching services.

Tavares sticks with India
Stellantis CEO Carlos Tavares said India offers opportunity - a view that cuts against decisions by Ford and Tesla to pull out of the nation of 1 billion.

Stellantis, in contrast, has developed a small car architecture tailored to India and is building an Indian supply base. Tavares told reporters the company could double revenues by 2030 and use India as a low cost source for batteries and other EV gear. Stellantis can build off a low base: It has less than 1% of India’s 3 million vehicle per year market today.

Water matters
Toyota and other manufacturers in Japan were forced to cut back operations because of a major leak at a central water treatment facility. The incident illustrates why water will be a concern as automakers look to build new EV and battery factories in dry places like Arizona and Texas.

Lyriq v. Model Y
It’s officially game on between Cadillac’s Lyriq electric SUV and Tesla’s segment leading Model Y.

Cadillac will start taking orders for the Lyriq May 19, and unveiled the starting price and range for its E-SUV.

Surprise! The Lyriq will start at $62,990, or $64,990 for the all-wheel drive version, which is the same starting price as the Model Y. The Tesla has a range of 318 miles, the Lyriq is estimated at 312.

For Cadillac, the win will be to get consideration against other electric luxury SUVs, and establish competitive bona-fides against Tesla. The competition for overall sales will be a lopsided affair. Tesla built more than 295,000 Model Y and Model 3 vehicles during the first quarter - and more Model Ys are coming from factories in Austin and Berlin.

More electric vans!
Israeli startup REE Automotive will come to Detroit to test an electric delivery van built on its skateboard chassis. REE should be sure to steer clear of the Rivian electric Amazon vans that are doing practice runs in the Detroit suburb of Plymouth.

Hyundai invests at home
Hyundai assured South Korea’s government it will invest the equivalent of $16.5 billion through 2030 to develop electric vehicles and factories in its home country. The announcement comes as Hyundai considers building a new EV factory in the United States.

Charge de France
Portuguese EV charging startup PowerDot landed $150 million in new capital to triple its charging network in France.

Europe’s car sales collapse
European auto sales in April fell by 20% compared to a year ago - the tenth monthly decline in a row.
Wait, is that a UFO?
Hey, Mr. Spaceman!
U.S. military officials assured Congress they are serious about getting explanations for mysterious, unidentified flying objects that have buzzed military aircraft. The Air Force might want to contact General Motors.

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