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The Biggest Auto World Stories of 2018

By: Bridget Clerkin December 18, 2018
From tariffs on steel and aluminum sending the auto industry into a frenzy, to the Waymo vs. Uber court case, 2018 was not short on drama or news.
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Sometimes it feels like the end of the year was almost tailor-made for introspection.

With the days growing piteously short and the nights ever longer, we find ourselves increasingly holed up inside with little else to do but mentally review the ups and downs of the past 12 months.

And 2018 has certainly been one hell of a ride—especially for the automotive industry.

From the start, the year seemed inherently violent, fostering a number of high-stakes fights between corporate behemoths, government agencies, and dueling countries. Its other biggest story revolved around an unprecedented—and grisly—death.

With all that rough road behind us, it may be tempting to put 2018 squarely in the rearview. But an experience not learned from is an experience wasted. Before we do our best to forget this year, we should at least try to absorb some of its biggest lessons.

Cheers, 2018. Thanks for the ride.

Tragedy at Hand

The rise of autonomous cars has been and will continue to be one of the biggest stories in the automotive world—and the world at large.

But the biggest story-within-a story broke this past March when tragedy struck in Arizona after a woman was killed by a self-driving Uber while crossing the street.

The death marked the first pedestrian casualty in the age of autonomous automobiles, raising any number of questions on the nature of the technology, the nature of the law, and how we, as humans, should respond to such artificially driven accidents.

Yet the incident was far from the only dark spot on Uber’s year.

Clash of the Titans

San Francisco Federal Court
The San Francisco Federal Court building, the scene of Uber and Waymo's battle royale.

2018 began with a bang when two of the tech world’s biggest behemoths were forced to do legal battle in a public arena.

After months of pre-trial skirmishes dating as far back as March 2017, Waymo took on Uber in earnest when the company’s lawsuit finally reached open court in February 2018.

The Google self-driving spinoff accused the rideshare giant of a number of shady dealings— including theft of trade secrets—after one of its biggest engineering stars, Anthony Levandowski, defected to Uber.

Waymo’s theory went that Levandowski took with him a number of valuable files containing plans for the even-more valuable LiDAR technology, widely believed to be essential in the creation of autonomous cars.

But despite all its epic hype, the trial itself was largely anticlimactic. It ended just 4 days after it began: Waymo settled for $244.8 million plus a few corporate concessions from Uber. This was a relative pittance, considering the company had initially cited potential damages in the billions.

Still, the lawsuit didn’t leave this world without giving us at least one gift: an ever-strange dictionary of Silicon Valley slang.

Clash of the Titans, Part II

Uber and Waymo weren’t the only two finding themselves in the throes of an epic struggle in 2018. The year also set the stage for the showdown between the California Air Resources Board (CARB) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Shots were first fired in April, when the EPA called for the reexamination not just of the country’s vehicle emissions standards but a long-standing legal caveat giving California autonomy over its own air pollution levels.

The move put the country on the brink of a huge divide—and suggested an even huger headache for auto manufacturers—as a dozen other states are legally pledged to follow the regulations set by CARB, the agency created by the 1970 Clean Air Act to create emissions policy in California.

Shortly after the decision was announced, CARB and many of those states declared that they’d to do everything in their power to push back on the EPA.

And the battle only continued to pick up steam as the year bore on, with Colorado becoming the 13th state to latch onto CARB’s positions in July, and the EPA doubling down on its proposed emission level cutbacks in August.

With no end to the legal fight in sight, this may well become one of 2019’s biggest stories as well.

Get What You Pay For

steel tubes
President Trump implemented steel tariffs, which in turn has shifted how automakers build cars.

And the EPA was far from the only government office finding itself embroiled in an automotive-related quagmire this year.

Riding on the heels of the agency’s April announcement was the news that President Donald Trump would be initiating stiff tariffs on steel and aluminum.

The policy was meant to punish China for flooding U.S. markets with a number of cheap imports. This same logic was used to back a similar plan in June, which called for an investigation into whether the high number of foreign vehicles available in the States was hurting the country’s economy—and therefore, its national security.

Still, the move may have caused no more harm than within the US auto industry itself, with the fluctuation of steel and aluminum prices and availability cited by each of the country’s “Big Three” carmakers as factors in a particularly rocky financial quarter earlier this year.

And while it purportedly had nothing to do with General Motors’ recent decision to halt operations in 5 North American factories—putting more than 14,000 jobs on the line—it no doubt helped foster a sour mood at the end of a particularly bitter year.

Here’s hoping 2019 has a much better new car smell.

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