Tesla Aims to Cut Crashes (And Misses)

Musk was expanding on a report published last week by the U.S. National Highway Safety Administration that not only exonerated AutoPilot of having a role in a fatal crash in Florida last summer but added that airbag deployments indicated that the crash rate had fallen nearly 40 percent, to 0.8 per million miles driven, down from 1.3 per million miles before the original version of AutoPilot was installed.

The fatal crash had cast a pall over Tesla’s system, prompting some critics to say that the company had overpromised simply by choosing the name AutoPilot. Tesla acknowledges that AutoPilot is not—yet—a truly autonomous system but rather a package of driver-assistance features, such as emergency collision avoidance, lane keeping, and active cruise control.

On Saturday Musk warned customers who were about to have access to the newly downloaded software package that there might be a need to adjust the hardware—specifically the angle of the cameras.

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Tesla’s own numbers show Autopilot has higher crash rate than human drivers

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Tesla’s claim that its Autopilot driver-assistance software is safer than a human driver.

After a fatal Autopilot crash last May, the company said the death was the first in 130 million miles of Autopilot driving—and noted that, “among all vehicles, in the U.S., there is a fatality every 94 million miles.”

The clear implication: Autopiloted Teslas are safer than human-piloted cars, and lives would be saved if every car had Autopilot.

But Tesla’s statistics are questionable at best. The small sample size—one crash—makes any calculation of Autopilot fatality rate almost meaningless.

Furthermore, Tesla compared its Autopilot crash rate to the overall U.S. traffic fatality rate—which includes bicyclists, pedestrians, buses, and 18-wheelers. This is not just apples-to-oranges. This is apples-to-aardvarks.

One statistician called Tesla’s comparison “ludicrous on the face of it.”

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Elon Musk makes cryptic comments about Tesla competing with Uber

Tesla CEO Elon Musk suggested Wednesday that he can create a car-sharing network that’s so good, customers will abandon Uber and other ride-sharing companies in droves to adopt it.

During an earnings call Wednesday, Musk was asked to explain whether his proposed car sharing network, dubbed the Tesla Network, would generate revenue for Tesla or help Tesla owners offset the costs of their vehicles. In response, Musk made some cryptic comments about the scope of his so-called “Tesla Network.”

Musk said people have been characterizing his car-sharing proposal as “Tesla versus Uber or Lyft or something like that. It’s not Tesla versus Uber, it’s the people versus Uber.” There was no follow-up question, so Musk’s statement was left hanging like that.

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Germany Says ‘Nein’ to Tesla Calling Its Tech ‘Autopilot’

TESLA MOTORS’ CARS kinda drive themselves, but its Autopilot technology has caused some headaches for the company. Consumer Reports called on Tesla to recall the feature, calling it “too much autonomy, too soon.” A Florida man died in a crash while using Autopilot.

And now, German transport minister Alexander Dobrindt asked Tesla to ditch the term “Autopilot,” arguing it can lead consumers to think the car is far more capable than it is.

Before going further, a note: Model S and Model X vehicles with Autopilot can stay in their lane and maintain a safe speed. The technology is meant for highways, where there are fewer obstacles to deal with, and requires drivers to keep their hands on the wheel and remain alert. Autopilot is designed to assist drivers, not replace them.

The electric automaker said nein to Dobrindt. In a statement, the company said it duly warns drivers of the system’s limits (whether drivers pay attention is another matter). And it defended using the word autopilot: “This is how the term has been used for decades in aerospace: to denote a support system that operates under the direct supervision of a human pilot.”

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Tesla Slams Breaks on Driverless Cars

The numerous automakers competing to get self-driving cars on the road want to achieve the same thing: Acquire the best possible database of autonomous behavior to ensure their cars are safer than the competition’s. That’s one reason why the industry is wary of a push by U.S. regulators to get them to share more data: The proposal essentially asks them to surrender their competitive advantage.

By encouraging drivers to give up more control to their vehicle, Tesla’s Autopilot mode may have given it an edge in data-collection over the more passive lane-assist and sensing systems employed by the likes of Volvo, BMW, GM and Toyota. But the costs of that high-stakes strategy have been outweighing the benefits: Aside from the rising toll of accidents, Mobileye blamed Musk’s over-enthusiasm about the technology for ending their relationship, and Germany last week asked Tesla to drop the term Autopilot in case it was leading drivers to reduce their attention.

Giving up on autonomous mode in new cars will reduce Tesla’s ability to overcome its numerical disadvantage in data collection against the major volume automakers. But it will ensure the entire industry is able to develop more prudently, and give regulators faith that engineers aren’t putting inter-company competition ahead of road safety. That can only be a good thing.

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California to Tesla: Don’t call it ‘Autopilot’

California regulators, it turns out, take a dim view of Tesla Motors’ Autopilot — not the self-steering system itself, but the name.

In draft regulations released late Friday, the state Department of Motor Vehicles said car companies should not use the terms “self-driving,” “automated” or “auto-pilot” in advertising unless their cars are capable of driving themselves without human passengers paying attention.

For Palo Alto’s Tesla, that could pose a problem.

The company’s Autopilot system, available in both the Model S electric sedan and Model X SUV, can steer on its own and change lanes. But the human driver is supposed to remain ready to take the wheel whenever needed.

The fatal crash in May of a Tesla driver who appeared to be watching a Harry Potter video while Autopilot drove his car made the need for that requirement clear.

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Why NASA thinks the Tesla Autopilot is a bad idea

NASA has been studying the pyschological effects of automation for decades, and thus may have something to teach Tesla, notes Scientific American.

“News flash: cars in 2017 equal airplanes in 1983,” Stephen Casner—a research psychologist at NASA’s Human Systems Integration Division—told the magazine.

For the public at large, the name “Autopilot” seems to imply a similarity to the automated systems that help fly planes, although the capabilities of the Tesla system are much more limited.

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Tesla Announces Part 2 of Its Master Plan, With Part 1 Still Unfulfilled

Author: Leon Kaye

Source: Triple Pundit

You might doubt the Tesla-SolarCity merger, but you cannot dispute the ambition and vision of Elon Musk. His drive to disrupt the financial sector proved successful. And with the money Musk made from PayPal, he set out to transform the transportation and energy sectors. A decade after outlining his first master plan for Tesla, Musk released a sequel that aroused a wide range of reactions from the media.

Dystopian yet optimistic, Musk builds on last month’s announcement that Tesla and SolarCity will become one. “We must at some point achieve a sustainable energy economy,” Musk wrote, “or we will run out of fossil fuels to burn and civilization will collapse.” To that end, Musk’s vision is part defense of the Tesla-SolarCity alliance, part fist-shaking at his critics. And, of course, it’s unapologetically bombastic and futuristic. The main points of the plan include:

  • Integration of clean energy generation and battery storage
  • The scaling of electric vehicles beyond passenger cars to heavy-duty vehicles and buses for public transportation
  • Autonomous cars, which will further enable ridesharing and allow Tesla to take on services such as Uber

Reactions, of course, were all over the map. “Tesla stock falls,” screamed the Los Angeles Times. “Execution still an open question,” declared CNBC. “An even more grandiose vision of the world,” mocked Fox Business. Bloomberg yawned, saying the announcement “falls flat.” Other commentators expressed surprise, from the new focus on trucks to Musk’s description of a future that goes far beyond cars and transportation.

But many skeptics say the issue with Musk’s second act is that the first one has not yet reached fruition. Yes, the first models that Tesla rolled out to the market disrupted the automobile industry, as the future of transport also came with a stellar design that wins plenty of attention at any automobile show. But Tesla continues to lose money. Furthermore, while the number of orders for the mid-range Tesla Model 3 areastronomical, the recent decline in deliveries of its Model S raised red flags. And as far as becoming a huge clean energy provider, that vision from 2006 remains to be seen. The SolarCity deal could make that goal a reality, but the merger is still not set in stone.

Musk has a history of making bold predictions — which helped him groom a devoted following, while angering skeptics of both his companies and the emerging clean technology sector at large. And despite all the bold announcements and naysaying, there is much to admire about what Musk is trying to do. His “gigafactories” in Buffalo, New York, and Reno, Nevada, have the potential to help transform those regions’ economies. A focus on electric buses and trucking can help shift those vehicles away from fossil fuels and help cities tackle their climate change goals.

Indeed, the dream of having a Tesla car that can be summoned at any moment to take you to work, or make money for you by carting around passengers when you are on vacation, is an awesome scenario. But it is not unreasonable for Tesla’s investors to demand that the company’s original master plan become a reality. Tesla’s fans, its investors and the market deserve to see that plan fulfilled before a new Tesla-SolarCity entity embark on a new, expensive plan that looks great on paper but risks the company’s long-term prospects. Continue reading “Tesla Announces Part 2 of Its Master Plan, With Part 1 Still Unfulfilled”

The Autopilot Fiasco Could Crash Tesla’s Master Plan

Author: Rob Tracinski

Source: Real Clear Future

Elon Musk just unveiled part two of his “master plan” for Tesla, but somehow instead of seeming ambitious and visionary, it seems a bit delusional. The most immediate and practical parts of the new plan consist of doing what others are also doing, like working on electric buses. But Musk also doubles down on his existing approach to self-driving technology, rather than retrenching and trying to fix it.

It is Musk’s standard approach to always play the part of the futuristic visionary, but it’s worth taking a look at how the problems with Autopilot, including the recent death of Tesla driver who was relying on it, could prevent Musk from moving on to the next steps of his master plan.

First, we have to understand Tesla’s overall position. It is a small automobile startup that has rocketed to an enormous market capitalization. Its stock price indicates that it’s worth about $33 billion, half as much as General Motors—at the moment a little more than half—despite the fact that it made about 50,000 cars last year, while GM makes about 10 million. Yet Elon Musk has been flogging even higher valuations, projecting that in ten years, Tesla could be worth as much as Apple, about ten times its current value and considerably larger than the other big automakers.

This hype is actually a necessary part of Tesla’s business model, because it’s what allows the company to raiseendless rounds of new capital to make up for the fact that they it is constantly losing money.

So it seems relevant to ask what Tesla could possibly be doing that justifies these enormous expectations for its present and future value?

Well, it’s not that Tesla makes a really good car, because by itself, that would make them just a niche, boutique semi-luxury car maker—equivalent to just one division of one of the big automakers, like GM’s Cadillac, which currently sells about five time as many cars as Tesla.

It’s not that Tesla is making an electric car, because many other automakers do that, too. The difference is that the others dabble in electric cars as a sideline to a much larger operation, knowing that if or when electric cars finally catch on with the public, they have the expertise to scale up production to much larger numbers.

And that’s the big advantage traditional automakers have over Tesla. They know how to make and deliver cars. They know how to build giant new factories and start producing millions of cars in a new model line. Tesla, by contrast, has disdained gaining that traditional expertise and is having big problems both in scaling up its automobile production, and in achieving the kind of quality control necessary to keep warranty and maintenance costs reasonable and to ensure that its cars have adequate resale value.

Elon Musk also wants to merge his auto company with his solar power company and battery storage units. But that doesn’t really give his auto division an advantage. Electricity is electricity, and you can plug any electric vehicle into your solar panels.

So what does that leave Tesla with?

Last year, the argument circulating in favor of Tesla was that its real competitive advantage was its lead in self-driving technology. Tesla has taken a different, more aggressive, more daring approach compared to other automakers. It based its system on standard camera technology rather than much more expensive laser-based lidar systems used by companies like Google. And it rolled out self-driving technology earlier and on a much larger scale. Instead of spending years testing the technology in a small fleet of experimental vehicles, Tesla provided it to their entire customer base, offering wireless automatic updates as they improved the software. In effect, they were doing a live beta test on America’s roadways, and the theory was that this would give them the advantage of Big Data. Being able to assess the results of autopilot working in tens of thousands of cars already on the road would allow them to improve their system faster than anyone else, beating everyone in the race to sell the first fully autonomous vehicle.

We can now see how that’s working out, and it’s not looking like such a smart plan. And the danger was known and predicted. When you take away some or most of the functions of driving but not all of them, you can’t just tell people to be ready to take over in an instant. The human brain doesn’t work that way; it requires new stimulation and when not constantly needed for a task, it will naturally tune itself out.

Which is precisely why nobody else took the same approach as Tesla. Every other automaker is used to dealing with a critical press and skeptical (if not outright hostile) regulators. They have learned to move cautiously and make safety a higher priority. In scorning that caution, it looks like Tesla has moved forward too fast.

That’s why the Autopilot problem is a really hard blow to Tesla. It calls into question the one area where they could expect to have a really strong competitive advantage. If it forces them to slow down on self-driving technology, or even start over from the drawing board—there have been sightings of a Tesla test car fitted with lidar—then they lose that advantage.

Meanwhile, Tesla also risks losing a lot of public sympathy. That’s important, because spectacularly good press—even a deferential press—is the biggest competitive advantage Tesla actually has. That, plus being able to cash in ongenerous government subsidies. But if the good press disappears, the subsidies may follow.

Lose that advantage, and eventually you have a small, money-losing niche automaker that can no longer keep itself alive by constantly pulling giant wads of cash out of the capital markets.

Elon Musk’s dilemma is that the very thing that makes Tesla seem so promising—the conceit of bringing a Silicon Valley start-up mentality to the staid world of heavy industry—is what just might destroy it. Musk employs a lot of standard Silicon Valley tropes. There are the insanely ambitious, visionary statements about how you’re going to transform the entire world, without a lot of detail on how you’re actually get from here to there. There are the exaggerated claims meant to impress investors and competitors and intimidate them into staying out of your market niche. There is the fast release of an early, buggy product in order to mark out the field as your own and show everyone you’re moving ahead faster. And there’s the combative, impatient dismissal of criticism and skepticism.

Hey, it worked for Steve Jobs, right? Then again, nobody ever died because their iPod crashed.

We all love a visionary billionaire who is rushing headlong into the future. (Indeed, that sort of thing is the basic remit of this website.) But sometimes the visionaries crash along the way, and the future ends up coming from somewhere that seems more sedate and cautious—which may get us there slower, but will do it more surely.

Which is to say that the big automakers’ master plans may end up being more important than Tesla’s for the future of autonomous vehicles. Continue reading “The Autopilot Fiasco Could Crash Tesla’s Master Plan”