Maybe Walt Disney was on to something back in the 1950s, when he was laying out the designs for his original family park. If you remember, Disney decided to have themed areas, such as Frontierland, while appealing to the kids with Fantasyland and to the kid in all of us with Tomorrowland. Only a fine line separated those last two areas; and the same may be true about the automotive world today. After all, we continue to be told that what we are seeing is actually Tomorrowland, when in reality Fantasyland surrounds us.
2017 managed to make that point very clear to all of us numerous times.
One of 2017’s goofier ideas came from the Ford Motor Company and Domino’s Pizza. The official press release called Domino’s “a world leader in pizza delivery” when Ford announced last August that it would jointly test the concept of pizza delivery in Ford autonomous cars. According to the game plan, this would be a real-world working test to see how Domino’s customers living in Ann Arbor, Mich., would react to this futuristic and very high-tech delivery system. Meaning, would people be willing to walk out to the street and get their own pizza out of the back of a Ford-Domino’s Fusion that did not have a driver?
Apparently, no one at Ford or Domino’s was aware that for decades people in America have been accustomed to walking out to the street to collect their mail; the idea of leaving the front porch for items one might need is not really a stretch for most. Come to think of it, people have been leaving their homes in their very own cars to drive to the grocery store to get that same dinner item — and without incurring any measurable shock to their systems — for at least that long.
Of course, the biggest shock of taking part in this Ford-Domino’s futuristic experiment is when you are notified that your pizza has arrived in front of your residence in a self-driving Fusion; when you walk out to the curb to retrieve dinner, you find that the Fusion isn’t self-driving at all. No, not only would a Ford safety engineer be behind the wheel, but there’d be other researchers inside, recording how customers react to a self-driving car that actually isn’t — and, apparently, to having to get their own pizza out of the back without anyone inside the car even offering to help.
At first read, the hype on that story gave one the idea that Tomorrowland was finally here. On second glance, it was just another bad ride in Fantasyland.
This was actually Ford’s second try of the summer at testing how the public responded to self-driving cars, but without using a self-driving car for the test. True, Ford camouflaged a driver much like Robert Downey Jr’s movie character Sherlock Holmes did — with an outfit that allowed him to blend into the seat he was sitting in. In this example Ford hid a someone in a “seat suit,” put him into a Ford Transit van, and then had him drive around Arlington, Va., to see how people would react to see a self-driving — make that an apparently self-driving van.
In all there were six drivers in this experiment. Some of them said the hardest part of the test was dealing with how hot it got in their seat costume. Also difficult was remembering to keep your hands low on the steering wheel, so no one outside would notice a real person was driving the van.
No word on whether they were all rewarded with pizza once this test was over.
We can’t take this trip through Fantasyland without bringing along the modern-day version of Walt Disney; that would be Elon Musk of Tesla, currently the world’s leading visionary of things that may never happen.
This time around Musk promised that the Tesla Model 3 would launch by summer, and that by the year’s end the company would be building 5,000 of those inexpensive vehicles each and every week. When the first quarter’s production was announced at much fewer than 250 units, things weren’t looking good for the home team.
Any other corporation manufacturing large durable goods that missed its forecast by that much would likely fire both its head of production and its CEO. But, as the second quarter of missed projections became even more of an issue, all Musk had to do was reach into his sack of business media trinkets and, like a magician at a kid’s party, easily distract reporters with what he was holding in his other hand: Musk simply drove out his working version of a fully electric big rig semi-truck.
Really, that’s all it took. Suddenly nobody cared that the Model 3 apparently couldn’t be built as designed. No, here was Elon Musk at his best, showing the world the next vehicle that he’ll likely have major problems getting off the assembly line.
What’s more important, though, the business media immediately started writing about all the companies that are lining up and throwing deposits Tesla’s way — to be the first on their block to order but not receive this incredible vehicle. That future event so overwhelmed the right-now news that production of the Model 3 is in serious trouble, at least by Tesla’s own reports, that nobody cared about right now anymore.
So what happened a few weeks later, when the happy news about the Tesla Big Rig electric truck faded from the business pages and the focus could return to the problems building the Model 3? Mr. Musk promptly treated us to the fact that soon Tesla will be building ... wait for it ... all-electric pickup trucks. Heck, that one could become the State Truck of Texas and Oncor.
But the show ain’t quite over yet, folks. Because last month Elon Musk announced that for the upcoming SpaceX launch of the Falcon Heavy, he’s donated his midnight cherry Tesla roadster as the payload. He even claimed that David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” will be playing as this vehicle is launched into orbit.
Well, I read the Reuters story about George Clooney’s lack of love for his Tesla Roadster. And based on the actor’s unedited tirade on the newswire, one can easily see where another Tesla Roadster owner, even if he owns the company, might find sending it into space the appropriate response. Now, assuming the Falcon Heavy doesn’t explode on takeoff from Florida, Musk said that his Roadster “will be in deep space for a billion years.” That’s smart. If it encounters hostile aliens in space, it might help convince them there’s no intelligent life on our planet.
The only thing that’s confusing about all this is that Musk didn’t use the Falcon Heavy rocket to install Tesla recharging stations across the galaxy first, before launching his electric cars into space. After all, that seems to have been his game plan up to this point.
Lewis Carroll, wire your office
Truly strange things are happening: Today’s hottest investment, according to the business press, is taking perfectly good money and investing in Bitcoin, a so-called currency that is entirely made up.
Ford has claimed to be testing self-driving pizza delivery cars that are in fact being driven by real people; the company has managed to turn its safety engineers into pizza delivery boys, so Ford and Domino’s can see whether people will walk to the curb to get a pizza out of a car. Meanwhile, another Ford van had a driver dressed as a car seat, to make people believe it was a self-driving vehicle. Can you imagine the fun if that van had been in a hit-and-run accident? The officer would ask what the driver looked like, and the witness would say, “A car seat.”
Tesla continues in what it refers to as “production hell” in bringing its Model 3 to market. Yet it can distract the world’s media from reporting on that failure with dreams of electric big rigs and pickup trucks — and blowing up Elon Musk’s personal roadster on a launch pad just for the distracting showmanship.
The way Walt Disney laid out Disneyland’s various areas was brilliant. But right now, you’re being told non-stop that you’re actually in Tomorrowland. And deep down inside, you know that can’t possibly be true.
© Ed Wallace 2018 Ed Wallace is a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism, bestowed by the Anderson School of Business at UCLA, and hosts the top-rated talk show, Wheels, 8:00 to 1:00 Saturdays on 570 KLIF AM. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org