The third week of May wasn’t a great week for all the high-tech companies that have promised to “disrupt” and replace our automotive industry — and in the process make Earth a perfect world of personal mobility, where no one makes car payments or needs auto insurance, and Flo is out of a job hawking Progressive Insurance on TV. In this future utopia, all one will need is a working smartphone, assuming the Russians haven’t hacked it yet; one simple app will summon your mobility to your door in mere minutes. And, for less than the price of owning a car or taking a taxi, you’ll be whisked off to your destination. Even better, traffic congestion will be a thing of the past with these new, smart self-driving vehicles.
Or, failing all that, we can fish the Lime Bikes out of White Rock Lake in Dallas and pedal to our destinations.
At least, those were the dreams that were peddled to the masses just weeks ago. Then, however, like the exposé of the Theranos blood testing fraud (oh, you believed that a 19-year-old college dropout had invented a machine that could run hundreds of tests off a drop of blood?), it all came crashing down with the reality that few of these new wonder machines are ready for prime time. For the motoring public it’s the equivalent of pulling back the curtain on the Wonderful Wizard of Oz, only to find charlatans pulling levers that mask their impotence with lights, smoke, and sound effects.
The Bad Little Self-Driver
To kick off the week of reality checks, the National Transportation Safety Board released some information, but not its final report, on the tragic accident in Tempe, Arizona, in which a homeless woman, Elaine Herzberg, was struck crossing a divided road with her bicycle and killed. As it turns out, the NTSB pointed out that Uber’s computer system did not fail in this accident, because it noticed something in the road six seconds before the collision. Here’s what happened in the next 4.7 seconds.
It first did not know what was in the road; then the system identified the object as a car and finally as a bicycle, but wasn’t sure what direction the bike was traveling. It never alerted the test driver, though the vehicle was going only 39 miles an hour — more than enough time for any driver to swerve or brake — and it only started braking the car after the accident occurred. That’s because Uber’s software was designed not to allow any emergency braking faster than 6.5 meters per second.
Additionally, according to the NTSB, the driver was not watching her smartphone, as first reported by the media; she was monitoring the computer equipment, which is why she was distracted. (Uber used to have two individuals on board, one to drive and one to monitor the system, but stopped that practice last year.) As Atlantic magazine noted in this story’s headline, “Uber’s Self-Driving Car Didn’t Malfunction, It Was Just Bad.”
Two questions come to mind after reading the facts of that accident. One we ask again: Who gave these companies permission to test these problematic cars on our highways without any sort of proof of their real capabilities? Second: This is the same company whose future self-flying taxis DFW signed up to be guinea pigs for in two years?
But it wasn’t just Uber having a bad week. No, over in Jerusalem Mobileye did a test of its self-driving car for the media. Considered one of the critical companies manufacturing gear that will one day make self-driving cars work, Mobileye has a near-sterling reputation, which is why Intel bought it. Sure enough, with the TV cameras running, Mobileye’s newest vehicle ran the first red light it came to.
Now another question: If a self-driving car runs a red light, who is responsible for paying the red light camera ticket? Could the computer then pay its traffic fines with cryptocurrencies?
Driving Itself Crazy
On May 11 another Tesla Model S owner had an accident while driving her car on its so-called AutoPilot in Utah; she looked at her phone while her Tesla ran into the back of a parked firetruck at nearly 60 miles an hour. Witnesses claimed that not only did the Tesla not slow down, it actually accelerated into the back of that firetruck.
Now, remember the fatality in Florida, where a Tesla ran into a semi-truck crossing the freeway? The owner was also distracted while using his AutoPilot; the excuse that time was that bright sunlight kept the Tesla system from seeing the big rig truck and trailer’s outline. One wonders how, in the May 11 accident, Tesla’s computers managed to ignore a bright red parked firetruck. Turns out that data from that car’s onboard black box showed the Tesla slowing down for a car directly driving in front of it, as it should have; but, when that car changed lanes to go around the parked firetruck, the Tesla resumed its former speed of 60 miles an hour right up until the moment of impact. Fortunately the owner suffered no more than a broken ankle in this Auto Pilot induced accident.
On May 25 the Automotive News reported that Tesla has settled a class-action lawsuit with owners of its Models S and X over the fact that their AutoPilot system was “essentially unusable and demonstrably dangerous.”
OK, so two of the companies most hyped for being leaders in the race to create a self-driving car have been disqualified for using systems less functional than vehicles already sold at dealerships with automatic braking installed. Yet, Tesla’s class-action settlement notwithstanding, just four days earlier Elon Musk had been discussing the latest variation of the Tesla Model 3 he wants to bring to market. It’s a dual-engine, high-tech version that could potentially sell for $86,000.
Keep in mind that the Model 3 was supposed to be Musk’s Model T “for the masses” who yearn for an electric future. Sure enough, one of its $3,000 options was, you guessed it, the promise of full self-driving capability for that car at some unknown date in the future. We’ll assume that’s a future long after everyone has forgotten about the semi truck accident and the parked bright red firetruck incident.
It did not help that in this period Consumer Reports blasted the Tesla Model 3 for its poor braking under a driver’s control; meanwhile, Edmunds.com noted in its review that its long-term Model 3 test car was falling apart. But Elon Musk made our prediction official: If Tesla can’t sell more really expensive Model 3 sedans to the public, well, “It’s a matter of life and death for the company.”
As numerous writers have pointed out, Tesla is already losing money on every Model 3 it sells; and the only Model 3s it’s shipping now don’t have a list price anywhere near that promised $35,000. More like fifty grand and up.
This seems like a good time to remind everyone that not long ago, I tested the Cadillac CT6 with GM’s Super Cruise system. I activated it at Green Oaks Blvd. in West Fort Worth and only had to retake control of the car when I made my exit into downtown Dallas, 37 miles later. It even slowed down for a car cutting across four lanes of traffic to make the Hampton Road exit.
Watch Both Hands
Then, miracle of miracles: According to Bloomberg, in the first three months of this year, with Uber’s revenues up by a stunning 70 percent, it finally managed to turn a profit of $2.5 billion on just $2.6 billion in revenues — after burning through $10 billion of working capital since its inception. Not so fast, though: It turns out that the profits came from selling Uber’s Russian and Southeast Asia businesses to rivals and had nothing to do with its primary business of being an Internet taxi company. For that business, even with revenues up 70 percent, the company still lost $312 million in just 90 days.
Bloomberg did point out that it appears from the company’s financial statement that it’s now taking a bigger cut of each passenger booking and leaving “a small portion of the price going to the driver.”
One Uber driver will not be getting a smaller portion of anything, except possibly meals in Georgia’s penal system: Kevin Jerome was pulled over outside of Atlanta while ferrying two Uberites to their destination and arrested. Turned out our formerly cheerful Uber driver had outstanding warrants for two counts of attempted rape, two counts of sexual battery, and three counts of aggravated burglary. Even the tech publications that have cheered this company’s disruption of the taxi industry over the past few years asked, what about the vaunted background check of its drivers that Uber claims is superior to the other checks that states and municipalities were demanding? Jerome’s had those outstanding warrants since 2016.
Don’t Hold Your Breath
The reality is that technology will move forward for all transportation. The day will come when these advances will be in our future automobiles. But real scientific advances, not hyped promises, take time. Take something as simple as an MP3 compressed audio file.
The concept was first put forward in 1979, but it was Karl Heinz Brandenburg in Germany who perfected that encoding system in the late Eighties, using the a capella version of Suzanne Vega’s song, “Tom’s Diner.” But that format didn’t take off immediately. First, personal computers that could ‘rip” songs on compact discs into MP3 files were needed, as were software for the encoding and online connections. Only then could Napster’s system of allowing record buyers to steal their favorite songs for free really make MP3 files a household name. But to anyone writing the history of that digital music format, if that history focused on Microsoft’s Zune MP3 player, it looks like it failed totally. On the other hand, Apple’s iPod changed everything and commercialized compressed digital music in a way that worked for the music industry and buyers alike.
The takeaway: If one is counting how long it took for something as simple as the technology to digitally compress music files to gain widespread public acceptance and use, it was 22 years. Fully self-driving cars will likely take longer.
Thanks to the third week in May, most now realize it may take a very long time indeed.
Update: This week another Tesla allegedly being driven on AutoPilot slammed into a police car in Laguna Beach. At this point we have to consider whether the Autopilot’s computer system has become self-aware and is running into emergency vehicles in a cry for help.
Also, in spite of Santa Monica fining Bird $300,000 for leaving their electric push scooters all over their streets without permission, and San Francisco has ordered them to all be picked up, then permitted properly, it appears Bird electric scooter rental is now Silicon Valley’s newest billion dollar start up.
Sometimes it’s good to worry about our economic future.
© 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