Weekly Brief: Tesla Just One Automaker Struggling to be Credible

Timing can be a real punk.

A week after Elon Musk regaled the world with bold promises of a self-driving future that included hundreds of thousands of self-driving Teslas buzzing around our streets, safely and without drivers, starting next year, word escaped that a Tesla operating in Autopilot Mode had been engaged before a crash that killed its driver in March 2019. Our Philip Oakley was on this story (see here for full details) but the short version is that a Tesla Model 3 slammed into a big rig on a Florida highway, lopping off the top of its cabin and taking the Tesla driver’s life in the process.

Sound familiar? It should. Almost the exact same accident killed a Tesla Model S driver on a Florida highway back in 2016. At the time it was the first fatal Tesla Autopilot crash; now there have been three and more reports of Tesla’s slamming into parked cars while moving at high speeds arise each month. In 2018 alone, three Teslas operating in Autopilot barreled into parked fire trucks.

Musk and his PR crew at Tesla continue to spin these events as lapses in driver judgement and attention. Autopilot is a semi-autonomous system, they stress, and drivers are required to stay alert when Autopilot is engaged. Sadly, Musk doesn’t seem to see, or doesn’t care to acknowledge, his own role in causing his drivers to disengage and overtrust their Teslas. Most Tesla drivers lionize Musk and believe their cars embody the future of transportation. So, when he promises full self-driving by 2020, even though the tech under the hood isn’t close to ready, and, furthermore, states that all Teslas built this year already are equipped for full autonomy, even though they lack LiDAR and, thus, are terrible at picking out stationary objects … like a fire truck, it has an impact on his drivers’ mindset and their level of trust when they go to engage Autopilot. If Musk would tone down the rhetoric and ease up on the false promises, his drivers would be safer.

Musk isn’t the only one with a credibility problem. The whole auto industry is rife with hypocrisy if you scratch beneath the surface. Take the current PR blitz by carmakers to frame themselves as green revolutionaries leading the charge toward a more sustainable, carbon-free existence. In May 2018 Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, promised that the automaker is keeping its commitment to an all-electric future and said that it’s dead set on creating “a world with zero crashes, zero emissions and zero congestion”. The carmaker has promised 20 electrics by 2023. Likewise, Ford recently hosted a Go Further event in the Netherlands where it committed itself to an electric future and unveiled a new line-up of 16 hybrid and all-electric models.

Meanwhile both carmakers are lobbying Washington, D.C., around the clock to fight climate policy and eliminate the vehicle fuel efficiency standards set under the Obama administration. They claim that installing fuel-saving technology is too expensive and not what consumers want. They’ve got a friendly ear in Donald Trump: put promises of a green future in the headlines while applying political pressure behind the scenes to freeze fuel efficiency and greenhouse gas standards, so that your fossil-fueled combustion engines can go right on polluting. (That’s assuming you believe our current energy generation mix makes BEVs ‘clean’ – Ed).

Just last week Daimler promised that it would be carbon neutral by 2039 and that half of all of its auto sales will come from EVs by 2030. Before long Daimler wants to be synonymous with a champion of “electric mobility”. That sounds great, although it’s worth noting that Mercedes-Benz has never sold an electric vehicle before. The first EV under the Mercedes brand debuts this year in the form of an SUV called the Mercedes EQC. Mercedes also sells electric Smart cars in the US but those are being discontinued. Also, lest we forget, the European Commission still has an ongoing investigation into Daimler, BMW and Volkswagen for participation in and collusion around Dieselgate, which led to millions of tons of excess pollution, all to save some money.

Speaking of VW, now has promised to have 70 EV models in its line-up come 2028. To get there, VW announced last week that in addition to converting 16 factories in Germany to become EV-centric, it’s also earmarking more than $1Bn to build its own battery-production plant in Germany. That will allow it to build its own batteries for its EVs, rather than rely on third parties which have failed to keep up with demand.

Don’t get me wrong. Some of these intentions are positive and may well lead to real-world benefits. They also can distract from larger agendas at play or lead us into a false sense of confidence, as yet another Tesla driver learned the hard way with Autopilot in March.

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