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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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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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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NHTSA Shrugged

There's a new sheriff in town... and he's big on self-enforcement.

There’s a new sheriff in town… and he’s big on self-enforcement.

As the GM ignition switch scandal snowballed over the last year, there has been much debate about just how much blame NHTSA bears for not catching the decade-old defect. The House Committee on Energy and Commerce staff report [PDF] analyzes NHTSA’s failure to prevent the deaths of 84 Americans (and counting), and concluded that a number of factors prevented NHTSA from detecting patterns that GM’s own top executives claim to never have known about. With headings like “information silos ” and “organizational tunnel vision,” the failures identified in the report are strikingly similar to the culture problems blamed for GM’s malfeasance; there’s even a “NHTSA shrug” to match the “GM shrug” identified in GM’s Valukas Report.  But the report’s final page gives the ultimate version of what we might as well start calling the “American shrug”:

There are no simple solutions to the failures exposed by this recall.

Which is true enough, as far as it goes. Again, if GM’s own leadership couldn’t identify the problem amid ten years of evidence it’s fair to say NHTSA didn’t have a chance. So rather than wondering why NHTSA isn’t capable of catching the worst-case nightmare scenario, perhaps we should be setting the bar a little lower. For example, let’s ask if NHTSA can at least ensure recalled cars don’t get sold before being repaired and if it can apply its efforts consistently. Because apparently even these modest standards are too much to ask…

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“Car Guys Versus Bean Counters” Is A Crock Of Shit

Th neverending story... (the cover of GM's 2006 annual report)

Th never-ending story… (the cover of GM’s 2006 annual report)

When Bob Lutz’s book “Car Guys vs Bean Counters: The Battle For The Soul Of American Business” first came out, my review was somewhat distracted by the fact that Maximum Bob had name-checked me in it (or misrepresented a NY Times Op-Ed of mine, depending on how you look at it). Still, the book’s basic problem was all-too familiar in the world of auto executive coverage: the benefits of insider insight were strongly counterbalanced by objectivity problems. I noted

 …though the title sets up an internal conflict within GM, Lutz spends so much space blaming outsiders for GM’s woes that, by a third of the way through, it begins to feel more like apologia than clear-eyed soul-searching… 

…In what is likely part insightful truth and part gentlemanly whitewash, Lutz frames his battle as being not with any one “bean counter” but a faceless (and therefore, blameless) culture in which management-by-the-numbers outweighed personal accountability. Lutz identifies individual “true believers” who he recruited in his design and product-led transformation of The General, but essentially absolves the thousands of others, including then-CEO Rick Wagoner, of any responsibility for GM’s continued decline and eventual collapse.

Lutz’s narrative of post-2001 GM history, in which he led a comeback of “car guy” talent against the decades-long rule of the “Bean Counters”, has been on my mind quite a bit in recent weeks, as GM’s decade-old dirty laundry has been piled into the public’s lap. Already, Congress’s investigation has made it clear that GM rejected fixes to now-recalled ignitions for “business case” considerations, making the ignition scandal a fatal case of “bean counting” that occurred on Lutz’s watch. In light of recent revelations, Lutz’s claim to have been GM’s champion of product quality in a “Battle For The Soul of American Business” deserves another skeptical look.

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GM Recall: Answers Hiding In Plain Sight?

And all the investigations, all of Lutz's men/ couldn't figure out who was in charge of things then.

And all the investigations, all of Lutz’s men, couldn’t figure out who was in charge of things then…

In the wake of General Motors’ and Mary Barra’s public lambasting last week, at the hands Congress and Comedy alike, a new sense of gravity now surrounds the still-unfolding scandal. Combined with the shocking facts surrounding the defect itself, Barra’s performance paints a picture of a GM unable to establish basic accountability without outside intervention. In a recent interview with New York Magazine, and sounding more like a corporate consultant than radical activist, Ralph Nader advises Barra to act relentlessly, arguing:

Look what it’s costing them: It’s already at $750 million and growing. What’s it cost them in lost sales? All kinds of stuff spills out, even if it’s not directly related to the ignition switch. She knows that it’s just going to get worse and worse. There are going to be whistle-blowers, and plain envelopes, especially when the press sees prizes — they see Polk Awards, Pulitzers, and so on — once they get into that realm, there’s no stopping it.

This has all the elements. It’s a cocktail that gets it going. It is very difficult to get the press into that realm — take it from someone who knows from over the years.

Ralph’s right: Barra’s unconvincing performance last week has stepped up pressure to find the answers she wouldn’t provide, and there’s no knowing where some tough digging could lead. After all, there are answers that Barra refused to give still hiding in (relatively) plain sight. With the help of a single book and internet access, anyone can find insight into the problems that are stumping Congress, the media and Mary Barra herself… Let’s not wait for the investigation, shall we?

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The Great Auto Safety Crash, Or, Why You Need To Be A Lawyer To Do An Automotive Journalist’s Work

GMCobaltNHTSA

I'm not an automotive journalist, but I played one on TV in the 1960's...

I’m not an automotive journalist, but I played one on TV in the 1960’s…

Of all the automotive sector topics covered by the business media, defect recalls are consistently one of the most tricky to cover. Most defects are the inevitable products of immensely complex supply chains and constant price pressure, and recalls for them are ultimately a sign of a company responding to the problem. And with some 22 million vehicles recalled from the US market in 2013, consumers can hardly be expected to know which ones represent grounds for real concern.

Because automakers control all the information about the products they make, reporters on the automotive safety beat have little choice but rely on the company line for their stories. Only the threat of investigation by the National Highway Transit Safety Administration compels automakers to fully reveal their dirty laundry, and only NHTSA’s complaint database gives the public an opportunity to compare their experiences with the company line. No wonder the first real auto safety journalist (and the inspiration for NHTSA’s founding) was a lawyer.

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