Does Autosteer Actually Deserve Credit For a 40% Reduction In Tesla Crashes?

Tesla’s high-flying image, which had been moving from strength to strength since early 2013, hit its biggest speed bump last year when its Autopilot semi-autonomous/Advanced Driver Assist System (ADAS) came under scrutiny in the wake of Joshua Brown’s death. Suddenly Tesla’s pioneering Autopilot system went from being one of the company’s key strengths to being a serious liability that raised troubling questions about the company’s safety culture. Tesla CEO Elon Musk tried to swat away these concerns with what proved to be a set of highly misleading statistics about Autopilot safety, but the issue was not laid to rest until NHTSA closed its investigation with a report that seemed to exonerate Autopilot as a safety risk. With a single sentence, NHTSA shut down the most dangerous PR problem in Tesla’s history:

The data show that the Tesla vehicles crash rate dropped by almost 40 percent after Autosteer installation.

Because NHTSA is the federal authority on automotive safety, with unparalleled resources to assess and investigate safety risks, this single sentence effectively shut down public concerns about Autopilot’s safety. In a terse statement on its company blog, Tesla noted

we appreciate the thoroughness of NHTSA’s report and its conclusion

But how thorough was NHTSA’s investigation, and how accurate was its conclusion? As it turns out, the questions around Autopilot’s safety may not be as settled as Tesla and NHTSA would have you believe.

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Model 3 Reservation Holder Survey Underlines Tesla’s Mass Market Challenge

 

They waited for reservations… will they also wait for service? (image courtesy Investors Business Daily)

Much of the critical coverage of Tesla Motors, both here at Daily Kanban and elsewhere, has focused on issues that Tesla is able to get away with as a small-volume manufacturer serving an affluent, early-adopter market segment. From manufacturing bottlenecks to quality control problems, from inconsistent, hype-happy communication to poor service, Tesla has been able to weather a storm of problems because its customers and fans are so patient with and passionate about the company. But as Tesla moves from expensive, low-volume cars to the mass market Model 3 these problems are taking on a new significance. In part this is because higher volumes increase the likelihood of quality and service problems, and in part it is because mass market customers who depend on a single car for their daily routine are more demanding than luxury car buyers who can always take the Lexus to work if their Tesla is broken.

Given Tesla’s pattern of releasing cars with insufficient testing as well as its chronic quality problems, it’s safe to assume that the Model 3 will face its fair share of issues. Thus, investing in service infrastructure that will allow Tesla to promptly and affordably repair and upgrade high volumes of Model 3 is extremely important. As Bertel has written about at Forbes, Tesla is behind the curve on those investments and it will cost billions to catch them up. Just yesterday a piece by former Tesla employee Evan Niu dramatically illustrated just how far Tesla has to go to improve its service time, which has dragged on for 8 long months in Niu’s case. Now an exclusive study of about 800 Tesla Model 3 reservation holders, EV owners and luxury brand car owners conducted last year on behalf of a major automaker and provided to Daily Kanban by an industry source, reveals why Tesla’s quality and service woes are so critical to the success or failure of the Model 3.

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CA DMV Report Sheds New Light On Misleading Tesla Autonomous Drive Video

On October 20th of last year Tesla Motors published an official blog post announcing an important development:

“as of today, all Tesla vehicles produced in our factory – including Model 3 – will have the hardware needed for full self-driving capability at a safety level substantially greater than that of a human driver.”

Tesla backed up this bold claim with a slick video, set to The Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black,” which depicted one of the company’s Model X SUVs driving itself from a home in the Bay Area to the company’s headquarters near the Stanford University campus, apparently with no driver input. In a tweet linking to the video, Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk described this demonstration in no uncertain terms:

“Tesla drives itself (no human input at all) thru urban streets to highway to streets, then finds a parking spot”

After months of negative news about Tesla’s Autopilot in the wake of a deadly crash that the system had failed to prevent, the video prompted a return to the fawning, uncritical media coverage that characterized the initial launch of Autopilot. And by advertising a new sensor suite that made all existing Teslas obsolete, the company was able to bolster demand for its cars even as it discontinued the discounts that had driven sales in the third quarter. Like so many of Tesla’s publicity stunts, the video was a masterpiece of viral marketing that drove the company’s image to new heights… but like so many of Tesla’s publicity stunts it also turns out to have been extremely misleading.

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Tesla Sued For Criminal Hacking

Excerpt from Katz's counter claim

Excerpt from Katz’s counter claim

The always-exciting tale of Tesla Motors took an especially interesting turn back in September, when Forbes reported that the electric automaker was suing a certain Todd Katz for allegedly impersonating Tesla CEO Elon Musk in an email sent to CFO Jason Wheeler. According to Tesla’s lawsuit, Katz sent an email from “[email protected]” to Wheeler on August 3rd, in which he impersonated Musk and sought “material, non-public” and “trade secret” information on behalf of his then-employer, the energy sector services company Quest Integrity, and its oil industry clients. Now Katz is firing back with a counter-suit alleging that Tesla hacked his Twitter account. Lawyers for Katz and Tesla have failed to settle the matter, and the first hearing for the case has been set for January 12th.  Most exciting of all, Katz’s court filings suggest Tesla may have hacked you too.

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Tesla Plans Long-Term Expansion Of Model S & Model X Capacity

teslaplant

Throughout its history, Tesla has always been a company that is looking ahead. Even when the company was hand-assembling tiny volumes of Roadsters, CEO Elon Musk’s “Top Secret Master Plan pointed the way towards lower prices and higher volume. Now, with two vehicles on the market and annual production volumes moving towards the six-figure mark, Musk told analysts on Tesla’s most recent earnings call that lower-cost, higher-volume Model 3 is “overwhelmingly our focus.” As for the Model S and Model X, Tesla’s so-called “Gen 2 vehicles,” Musk says “things feel really quite stable.”

That doesn’t mean that Tesla is done investing in its current lineup, however. In fact, the electric automaker’s latest approved application for sales and use tax exclusion (STE) from the California Alternative Energy and Advanced Transportation Financing Authority (CAEATFA) [PDF of CAEATFA’s staff report here] reveals that it is actually spending nearly half a billion dollars in order to expand the production capacity of its Gen 2 vehicles to 195,000 units per year by approximately 2021.

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Elon Take The Wheel

tesla-elon-musk-picture courtesy Forbes

If Tesla Motors has a single greatest asset, it’s not a factory or battery chemistry but the immense public trust that its CEO Elon Musk inspires. Faith in Musk’s abilities and good intentions underlies Tesla’s, passionate fan base, perceived technology leadership and high-flying valuation, and excuses its multitude of shortcomings in quality and customer service. Nothing exemplifies the power of this faith like Tesla’s ability to convince the public to trust its Autopilot system to navigate them through a landscape that kills more than 30,000 Americans each year. So as the number of Autopilot-related crashes begins to pile up and Tesla belatedly reveals that one of its customers died while using the system, it’s not surprising that faith in Musk and Tesla is taking a hit.

In my latest post at The Daily Beast, I teamed up with Nick Lum to investigate why so many Tesla owners appear to believe that Autopilot is more capable than it actually is and our findings are deeply troubling. From the very first announcement Musk and Tesla have misrepresented Autopilot’s capabilities in hopes of maintaining Tesla’s image as Silicon Valley’s most high-tech auto play in the face of Google’s far more serious autonomous drive program. Now, even after the first fatal crash, they are trying to maintain misperceptions of Autopilot’s capabilities by touting junk statistics that purport to demonstrate an Autopilot safety record that is superior to the average human driver. As Nick and I discovered, the deeply disingenuous nature of Tesla’s representations erode Tesla and Musk’s credibility on a fundamental level: either they do not understand the auto safety data or they are intentionally misleading the public. Either way, they refuse to acknowledge that either incompetence or deception has created a situation that has put the public at risk and continue to stand by safety claims that don’t hold up to even the slightest critical analysis.

As it turns out, there’s almost no end to the ways in which Tesla and Musk’s claims about Autopilot safety fall apart under scrutiny. In addition to the analysis presented in The Daily Beast, here are a few more ways in which to think critically about Tesla’s Autopilot claims.

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The Salt Is Real

SaltFlat

In the eight and a half years since I began studying and writing about the auto industry in a professional capacity, my positions on the topics of the day have rarely failed to cause some level of controversy. I’ve long since lost count of the number of enraged comments, emails and tweets my writing has inspired, and I’ve even had my last name mocked by the White House press secretary during a press gaggle on Air Force One after an Op-Ed I wrote for the New York Times was misquoted by Rush Limbaugh. Once the spokesman of the leader of the free world has made an “Animal House” joke at your expense, every subsequent howl of outrage tends to fade into the background a bit … at least until the most influential automaker in the world smears you with the baseless innuendo and outright lies.

Ever since Tesla Motors wrote a salty blog post responding to my investigation of its use of non-disclosure agreements in return for “goodwill repairs,” a thousand flowers of anger, hatred and slander have bloomed across the internet. An online lynch mob, seemingly unleashed by Tesla and its CEO Elon Musk, has flooded social media, forums and comment sections with false and defamatory statements about me, my motivations and my reporting. Were these attacks in any way fact-based or substantive, we might be able to have an interesting and illuminating debate about the issue at hand. But because Tesla apparently chose to attack me personally, in vicious, indiscriminate terms seemingly calculated to cause as much harm to my professional credibility as possible, it’s time to get truly salty. In fact, if you’re following a low-sodium diet, you may want to go ahead and stop reading now.

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Declarations Under Penalty Of Perjury Re Tesla Motors

perjury - picture courtesy wisegeek.com

“I, Edward Niedermeyer, never did own, nor do I own, nor do I plan to own, Tesla Motors shares, puts, calls, or any derivatives that would gain in value through price swings in Tesla Motors stock. I never did short, nor do I currently short, nor do I plan to ever short Tesla Motors stock. I have no financial interest whatsoever in the success or failure of Tesla Motors.”

I declare under penalty of perjury that the foregoing is true and correct. Executed on June 13, 2016
Edward Niedermeyer

 

“I, Bertel Schmitt, never did own, nor do I own, nor do I plan to own, Tesla Motors shares, puts, calls, or any derivatives that would gain in value through price swings in Tesla Motors stock. I never did short, nor do I currently short, nor do I plan to ever short Tesla Motors stock. I have no financial interest whatsoever in the success or failure of Tesla Motors.”

I declare under penalty of perjury that the foregoing is true and correct. Executed on June 13, 2016
Bertel Schmitt

In recent days, we, the editors of Daily Kanban have come under vicious attacks, online and offline. The thrust of these attacks is that we somehow would gain from the downfall of Tesla or its shares, because otherwise, the contrived logic goes, we would not have written stories like this one. We have reason to believe that these accusations are inspired by an official blog post of Tesla Motors, which insinuates that Ed Niedermeyer and his “associates have something financial to gain by negatively affecting Tesla’s stock price.” Elon Musk never had to look long for people who read, and then present his often sibylline utterings as facts, and as a call to brutally attack independent journalists. Once devotees hang on your every word, you as their spiritual leader become responsible for their actions.

We, the editors of Daily Kanban, make this declaration to establish the facts that have been missing. We expect Tesla to retract these insinuations. Alternatively, Mr. Musk and his surrogates can sign similar declarations, and we will establish who profits from TSLA prices swings, and who does not. These declarations are also made as a service to those who have publicly expressed their desire to put us in jail: Perjury can result in incarceration.

As Tesla said in a blog post previous to the one above, “this is not a legal issue,” at least not at this point in time. “It is a moral issue.”  A company with such high morals should not sink to the levels of inflaming thugs to stomp out independent journalism. Tesla’s declared mission is to “change the world.”  We do not want to live in a changed world reigned by bullies, or in a world without a free press.