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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How Tesla Tries To Keep The Media On Autopilot

autopilot

Today I appeared on Bloomberg television to discuss Tesla’s latest earnings, as I have after the electric car maker’s last few quarterly reports, but this time things were somewhat different. Minutes before we went live, the show’s host Emily Chang told me that she would be asking me about a correction that Tesla had requested to my most recent Bloomberg View post about the new Autopilot 2.0 hardware suite announcement. My initial draft had said that “several” people had died in Teslas with Autopilot enabled, and at the request of a Tesla representative my editors and I agreed to clarify that only two deaths were tied to the controversial driver assist system. I am always happy to make factual corrections to my writing, but because I had limited time to explain the complex circumstances around this particular issue I thought I would write a post laying out the particulars of this case.

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Documents Show Tesla Expanding Annual Production To About Half Of 500K Goal

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The Daily Kanban has obtained Tesla’s application [PDF here] to the California Alternative Energy and Advanced Transportation Financing Authority (CAEATFA) for about $100m worth of Sales and Use Tax Exclusion (STE) on its purchase of about $1.2 billion worth of production equipment to be used to produce its affordable Model 3. An analysis of key unredacted portions of this CAEATFA application shows that this massive investment –along with CAEATFA documents related to Tesla’s expansion of Model S and Model X vehicle production— will only increase the electric automaker’s annual production to between 230,000 and 300,000 units per year, well short of the firm’s 500,000 unit per year goal for 2018.

Though Tesla could reach its much-discussed half-million per year production goal through other means, these CAEATFA documents appear to validate Daily Kanban‘s analysis of air quality permits at Tesla’s Fremont plant which indicates a current production limit of about 230,000 units per year.  Tesla has yet to publicize any plans to apply for the new permits or make the new investments required to bring its production rate beyond these limits and towards its planned 2018 rate of 500,000 units per year.

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Tesla Suspension Breakage: It’s Not The Crime, It’s The Coverup

TeslaBallJoint

For several months now, reports have circulated in comment sections and forum threads about a possible defect in Tesla’s vehicles that may cause suspension control arms to break. Many of those reports appeared to come from a single, highly-motivated and potentially unreliable source, a fact which led many to dismiss them as crankery. But as more reports of suspension failure in Teslas have come in, Daily Kanban has investigated the matter and can now report on this deeply troubling issue.

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Behind The Volkswagen Scandal, A “Car Cold War” Simmers

The still-unfolding Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal has earned the largest German automaker more than a week of public opprobrium in the US media, as American owners, regulators and commentators rush to condemn the most blatant case of regulatory evasion in recent automotive history. In Europe, however, the outrage at VW’s emissions manipulation is tempered by a certain amount of realpolitik. French Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron has given voice to European suspicions by suggesting that American automakers are fueling the scandal for competitive purposes, and German officials have made it clear that they intend to “contain” the scandal. Grievances over auto industry issues have long been a source of friction between President Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and the Volkswagen scandal has brought tensions old and new spilling out into the open.

 

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Tesla Battery Swap: CARB’s Bridge To Nowhere

Tesla and California’s Air Resources Board are standing by the controversial “fast refueling” credits that are directing as much as hundreds of millions of dollars to the California-based electric car maker for its little-used battery swap capability. At the same time, both Tesla and CARB admit that battery swap has not shown much promise and CARB staff tell Daily Kanban that they tried to completely eliminate the credits out of concern over Tesla’s “gaming” of the system only to be overruled by board members. The tension between Tesla and CARB’s defense of ZEV credits earned by Tesla’s battery swap capability and their apparent lack of optimism about the technology going forward confirms the fundamental concerns that surfaced in Daily Kanban’s initial investigation: battery swap credits seem to have done nothing to advance the cause of ZEV adoption, Tesla appears to have gamed the credit system for huge financial gain, regulators show little interest in ending Tesla’s obvious abuse and the public remains under-informed about the entire situation.

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Analysis: Understanding Tesla’s Potemkin Swap Station

Where are the customers?

Where are the customers?

The return of battery electric vehicles (BEVs) to the US market nearly a century after internal combustion technology swept them aside is one of the most compelling automotive stories of the last decade, bringing a much-needed injection of fresh ideas and enthusiasm to an increasingly mature and commodified industry. Though BEVs remain less than 1% of global auto sales, they have become immensely important to automakers by aiding compliance with various emissions regulations, as well as creating an aura of environmental responsibility and technological innovation. The immense power of these incentives is made manifest in Tesla, the Silicon Valley-based BEV maker that has defied the industry’s immense challenges to startups and become the hottest automotive brand in the world. Despite selling just 31,655 vehicles in 2014, a tiny fraction of the industry’s global volume, Tesla and its CEO Elon Musk receive huge amounts of (largely favorable) media coverage and enjoy a market capitalization that exceeds far larger competitors like Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.

Sales of BEVs continue to grow in the face of lower gas prices, but nearly every model still sells far below initial estimates. Even President Obama’s goal of putting a million plug-in vehicles (BEVs and plug-in hybrids [PHEVs]) on US roads by 2015 has turned out to be wildly optimistic. The high cost of lithium-ion batteries is widely considered a key limiting factor on the growth of BEVs, but just as important is the issue of range and recharging; in a market long accustomed to the convenience of gasoline, the limited range and long recharging time of BEVs remains a major barrier to consumer acceptance. Though rapid charging infrastructure has grown as more BEVs have been brought to market, they still require at least 30 minutes to deliver a meaningful amount of power, speed battery degradation, use competing charging standards, and remain far less common than gas stations.

These shortcomings have pushed some automakers, like Toyota and Hyundai, to avoid BEVs altogether in favor of hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) that generate zero tailpipe emissions but can be recharged as rapidly as gasoline cars. The only other way to provide rapid refueling of zero-emissions vehicles (ZEVs) involves swapping batteries rather than recharging them. This strategy was attempted by Project Better Place, a now-defunct firm that deployed battery swap stations and an innovative pricing structure in Israel and Denmark between 2008 and its 2013 bankruptcy, as well as several pilot projects elsewhere. When Better Place failed, the battery swap concept was widely seen as having been discredited. But by then, another startup had taken up the mantle of the promising-yet-challenging swap strategy: Tesla.

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Everyone’s A Bad Driver (Except Me And My Autonomous Car)

In the good old days we worried that other humans were amoral instead of worrying that robots are amoral...

In the good old days we worried that other humans were amoral instead of worrying that robots are amoral…

When news broke this week that autonomous cars operated by Google and Delphi have been involved in 12 crashes since they began testing, the reaction was predictably breathless. Ever since the technology was announced, commentators have been obsessed with the technical and ethical shortcomings of the robot chauffeurs that Silicon Valley insists are the solution to the some 33,000 road deaths that take place in the US each year.

As driverless technology continues to advance, these fears won’t simply go away; on a psychological level, humans seem wired to fear anything that diminishes our sense of control, even if that sense of control is an illusion. This psychological barrier, irrational though it may be, demonstrates a crucial reality of the transition from cars to autonocars: developing technology that improves on the dismal safety record of human drivers is far easier than re-organizing social and individual values that have evolved over the hundred-year history of the automobile.

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