Weekly Brief: Autopilot ‘cover-up’ death casts pall over Tesla

In January, a 23-year-old man driving his dad's Tesla down a highway in the Hebei province of China slammed into a stationary street sweeper and died. The car's Autopilot function was reportedly engaged at the time but Tesla never reported the technical malfunction to authorities or the general public.

Now, thanks to a report by Chinese news channel CCTV, the secret is out and Tesla is under fire for its robot cars for the second time in three months. The biggest questions being posed, by both the media and safety advocates like Consumer Watchdog, attack Tesla over: A) its seemingly brazen deployment of a technology that wasn't ready for primetime and; B) its clandestine nature when it comes to reporting events that are of vital importance to its customers and the general public's safety.

Tesla for now has hunkered down behind the excuse that it was never able to 100% verify that Autopilot was engaged when the accident in China occurred but that seems unlikely to stem the tide of negative press and genuine safety concern for long.

In other news, Uber finally launched its self-driving car pilot in Pittsburgh. A small fleet of white and black Ford Fusions are now buzzing around select neighbourhoods of downtown Pittsburgh with plans to expand to the airport in the coming weeks. The cars have twenty cameras, seven lasers and two engineers up front who can take over in the case of emergencies or risky situations; an iPad in between front and rear seats lets riders view what the car's sensors are processing in real time and allows passengers to provide feedback. Uber's ultimate goal: eliminate its overhead (i.e. drivers).

George Hotz, founder of driverless start-up Comma.ai, declared that his self-driving car kit will be available for $999 (£768) by the end of the year. The kit will fit cars with sensors and a camera to make them “on par with Tesla's Autopilot”, Hotz told a crowd at TechCrunch Disrupt. Perhaps not the wisest comparison given the timing but impressive given the price compared to a new Tesla. The kit will be called the Comma One and will include a $24 monthly fee. Aftermarket start-up Vinli, which claims it wants to turn every car on the road today into a connected car, forged a couple of valuable partnerships to bring it one step closer. The first is with Cox Automotive, owner of online auto retailers like Autotrader and dealer.com, will allow its network of 40,000 dealers to install Vinli devices into all cars on their lots and, by extension, offer their customers cars with WiFi from T-Mobile and an ecosystem of in-car apps. The second is with Meineke Car Care, which will start to offer the $200 device this October to all of its reward members. Volkswagen announced that it is collaborating with top Israeli experts to establish an automotive cyber security company. Details are still hazy but we do know that the newly founded CYMOTIVE Technologies will develop advanced cyber security solutions for next generation connected cars and mobile services. The company will be based in Herzliya, Israel, and in Wolfsburg, Germany.

TomTombrought built-in WiFi to the fleet sector. With the new TomTom BRIDGE Connected, drivers get a tablet device with built-in 3G and the ability to directly connect with their customers, get updates as they happen and communicate with their home office. The device comes with TomTom maps, navigation and traffic and will retail for $649 when it goes on sale in North America in late September.

Revenues generated by driverless technology will exceed $1Trn by 2030, according to the latest forecast from ABI Research. This revenue will syphon cash away from traditional transportation modes like car ownership, buses, trains, aviation, taxis and rental cars. ABI calls the burgeoning industry “Mobility as a Service” and says it will breed a competitive environment full of dynamic transportation marketplaces, public private partnerships and aggregators moderating and managing supply and demand according to government policies and frameworks.

The Weekly Brief is a round-up of the week’s top telematics news, combining TU-Automotive analysis with information from industry press releases.


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