Tesla’s Driverless Technology Premature, Volvo Executive Says
During a chat about Tesla with journalist Lawrence Ulrich, Volvo AB Senior Executive Peter Mertens said Tesla Motors Inc (NASDAQ:TSLA) may have introduced technology on some of its cars prematurely. The pair met to discuss the new Volvo “V90” and “S60” models. Meanwhile, Tesla stock has experienced a bit of a yo-yo ride over the past few days, bouncing up and down as the company deals with a series of allegations about the safety and reliability of its cars.
Mertens, who has been at Volvo since 2011 after many years in the car industry with companies such as Jaguar, Land Rover, General Motors, and Daimler-Benz AG, made these claims during the product launch for the new Volvo V90 and S60. Volvo’s head of research and development also accused Tesla’s “Autopilot” system of “trying to kill” him whenever he had used it. (Source: “Tesla Autopilot is ‘trying to kill me’, says Volvo R&D chief,” International Business Times, June 13, 2016.)
The interview may have shaken some future Tesla owners’ confidence—just a little bit, since they tend to have the kind of faith the Pope in Rome can only dream about—but Tesla stock is trading nicely today. TSLA shares are up more than two percent.
The Autopilot innovation is one of Tesla’s most acclaimed features. There have been several YouTube videos of Tesla owners showing off how the system works. The system is able to control the vehicle’s accelerator, the steering, and braking along the highway. While autonomous, Tesla correctly advises users to pay attention and be ready to take over (then, you ask, what’s the point?). (Source: Ibid.)
So, it’s no surprise that Mertens offered his criticisms just weeks after Elon Musk, Tesla’s CEO, said that drivers are 50% less likely to experience a serious accident when they use Autopilot rather than when they drive with no help from the on-board computer. (Source: Ibid.) Perhaps, then, the feature should not be called or sold as “Autopilot”? It might be best merely to promote it as a safer driving option that enhances the driver’s abilities rather than call it “Autopilot,” which encourages a more relaxed and dangerous attitude.
Rather, Musk, in an over-excited teenager sort of way, claims, “Even with this early version, it’s almost twice as good as a person.” (Source: Ibid.) Musk also noted that Autopilot remains in the beta stage of development. The problem is that any Tesla owners who have chosen and paid for this feature can use it! (Source: Ibid.)
Volvo, the company that first invented such safety features as the three-point safety seat belt, rearward-facing child safety seats, or side impact protection—which the whole industry has adopted—is not impressed by Tesla at all. Volvo, as it happens, even help cut carbon monoxide emissions—the dangerous kind of carbon, not the harmless carbon dioxide that’s necessary for plant life—with its “Lambda Sond” in 1976.
Indeed, Volvo’s Mertens said of Tesla’s Autopilot, “Anyone who says ‘we have systems that are better than human drivers’ is lying to you…Anyone who moves too early is risking the entire autonomous industry. We’re the safety brand, and we’re taking things slowly. Until the systems are better than a good human driver, Volvo won’t go there.” (Source: Ibid.)
Tesla owners should pay attention when Volvo is the one pointing this out. Volvo, for which safety is the most important selling point, says it is moving slowly with the driverless technology.
And Mertens is not the only person who has dared to point out some areas where Tesla can improve its products. Apart from the Autopilot feature, Tesla has experienced massive delays with the “Model X” SUV, the one with the falcon wing doors. (A word of advice: don’t call them gull-wing doors in the presence of a Tesla Motors fanatic, who could run circles around an England soccer fan.) Owners of the Model X—at least the few who have received their vehicle so far—have also complained of poor visibility. (Source: “Early-Build Tesla Model X SUVs Face Quality Issues,” Consumer Reports, April 19, 2016.)
That can’t be good for Tesla stock.
Then there is the recent case of a faulty suspension with the “Model S.” A famous automotive writer and blogger claims to have identified a major flaw with the Tesla Model S suspension. The story has had its effect, after many media outlets picked it up. Such was the buzz that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has gotten involved. The data against Tesla, or some of it, appears to be false and the NHTSA has reassured consumers about the strength of the Model S. (Source: “The story behind the ‘false’ Tesla suspension complaints to NHTSA,” Electrek, June 13, 2016.)
Still, the article by Ulrich and published on the news website The Drive, lists a number of considerations regarding Tesla’s cars and autonomous driving system. And these are not positive, neither for consumers nor owners of Tesla stock.
At this time, Tesla’s Autopilot can be classified as being between level two and level three for autonomous driving technology, which means it’s more of an advanced driver assistance system than a fully autonomous one. Unfortunately, the videos circulating the Internet, with Tesla fan boys and gals sitting behind the wheel of a Tesla sleeping or leaning out the window as the car drives itself, offer a misleading perception of what the car is capable of doing.
This hurts Tesla and Tesla stock, especially as Musk himself has repeatedly stressed that it is a semi-automated system that demands human supervision. The problem is that neither Tesla, nor anyone else for that matter, has invented a technology to isolate the smart humans from the stupid ones. As it turns out, the fact both may have enough money to afford the luxury of a Tesla doesn’t make them any less stupid when they’re behind the wheel.