July 9, 2019

July 9, 2019

Another Stop Sign for Self-Driving Cars. Elon Musk is unhappy: Somehow his grand vision of allowing every Tesla owner to sleep in the back of the car while they're whisked around to work and play hasn't come to fruition. According to an article at The Information, Musk has fired several top managers working on Tesla's "Autopilot" feature, including the group's leader, over frustrations with the failure to create a fully self-driving car.

Maybe the problem isn't with the engineers but the concept. I have a file of links going back a year with false starts and missteps on self-driving cars. The concept seems rather simple, but not all roads are created equal. In particular, Musk's anger stems from the software being slow to adapt from highway to city driving.

It may not surprise you that it's easier to program in driving 65 miles per hour on a long straight road, rather than moving through one-way, narrow, jagged-angled streets in a busy urban environment, with delivery trucks and Ubers and pedestrians and everything else getting in the way. "The system often doesn't know how to recognize parked cars because it is not a common feature of highway driving," the article notes, which seems somewhat necessary.

My concern has always been that Tesla or other self-driving car barons will sell cities and states on putting public money into the mother of all infrastructure projects to accommodate the vehicles, basically rebuilding cities from scratch, or dedicating special lanes to the products of private companies. There are lots of better things we can be doing with the enormous sums that would have to be put to that task. Meanwhile, all the major self-driving car companies are consolidating, narrowing to a few leaders that will maintain outsized economic and political power. That makes the nightmare of a public bailout for private automated vehicles more likely.

Musk has promised a fully automated, self-driving Tesla by 2020, and now he's starting to realize that he cannot deliver. It's becoming a problem for a company whose stock has fallen 25 percent this year. Maybe a big-talking techbro who never follows through on his grandiose claims isn't the savior America needs?