What’s Up Wednesday 5/8/19

Tariff Problems for Tesla – Part 1? 

The central processing unit of Tesla’s autonomous vehicle technology (the same autonomous vehicle technology that we featured in a ‘What’s Up Wednesday’ article one week ago, slated to be standard equipment on all Tesla EVs moving forward) has been denied exemption by the Trump administration in its ongoing (and seemingly about to escalate) trade war with China.  We have listened to a lot of rhetoric claiming substantial progress in trade negotiations between the two superpowers, however in the past couple of days it sounds as if this trade war threatens to spin way out of control like a race car that’s hit an oil slick.  In my mind, it was always a big question whether China was truly prepared to execute any sort of significant trade deal (and you have to wonder at this point if they trust the Trump administration enough to actually do one – and vice versa), but that’s another topic for another day (we’ll cross our fingers and see – maybe the two countries can still get something done).

When Elon made his presentation last week, he was well aware (the company had been informed of the decision on March 15) that Tesla’s application for an exemption in the case of this technology had been denied (and perhaps he remained mute about it because the company has several additional requests for exemptions in the pipeline).  So even as he was making last week’s gaudy introduction of this new autonomous driving technology, he must have realized that what he was promising, the technology’s omnipresence in Tesla vehicles, would be difficult (or perhaps even impossible) to deliver.  As an aside, it seems that ever since Trump took office, likely well before that however no one but those closest to him probably realized it or cared, he seems to have wielded personal spite against (and malevolence toward) tech companies, in and out of Silicon Valley; this seems to be especially true of the biggest tech companies with the wealthiest CEOs – Amazon, Facebook, Tesla maybe – interesting to me because I don’t recall this president going after the likes of Buffett (who historically hasn’t invested in tech but happens to be not only extremely wealthy but an admitted Democrat – you would think a made-to-order whipping boy for Donald Trump) even as he’s gone after Bezos multiple times now.

Elon enjoys flaunting the notion of autonomous taxis in the foreseeable future, however to be fair even if equipped with this new autonomous driving technology, his vehicles are currently far from capable of navigating (without human intervention) through all road and traffic conditions that an average car with an average driver running an average daily itinerary would likely encounter.  A fully autonomous vehicle (still with some limitations that require human meddling in the operating process) is designated a “Level 4” by the SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers).  Tesla vehicles, even those harboring the latest technology, are considered just “Level 2” – below is a breakdown of the five levels of vehicle autonomy as designated by the SAE:

Level 0: driver operates vehicle with absolutely no assistance.

Level 1: driver receives minimal assistance (think of a standard collision avoidance system for example that is able to assist the driver with some evasive maneuvers if necessary); otherwise driver handles all navigational and performance tasks.

Level 2 (where Tesla’s production vehicles are currently situated; where most of the autonomous vehicles being developed today by a majority of manufacturers reside): by engaging system, the driver receives assistance with duties like acceleration and steering, however he or she must always be ready and prepared to retake control of the vehicle and is considered responsible for monitoring the surroundings and ensuring safe vehicle navigation.

Level 3: this is the first operational level at which the vehicle actually monitors the environment – typically with the use of LiDAR or similar sensors.  Some Level 3 vehicles require no human attention at all when speeds are low.  At higher speeds, the driver must be cognizant of what’s transpiring around the vehicle and be prepared to assume control if and when necessary.

Level 4: vehicle is capable of performing any task related to driving – acceleration, braking, steering, responses to lane changes, executing turns with the correct traffic signals, responding to simple events such as being cut off in traffic or having another car enter the street at a slower speed as it approaches – a Level 4 machine works best on uncrowded streets and highways; this is because it cannot effectively manage complex situations such as freeway merges or traffic backups.

Level 5: this is where Elon’s fleet of driverless taxis would reside – no driver input required whatsoever as the vehicle is capable of handling any road condition it encounters or traffic occurrence that might arise; also capable of safely assuming all aspects of vehicle operation from braking to steering to acceleration.  In other words, those of us who eagerly await truly FSD (Full Self-Driving) vehicles are envisioning these.

Right now, Tesla offers its drivers two choices when it comes to autonomous vehicle operation.  Autopilot is what has historically been standard on Tesla models (the original Autopilot version was released in 2014; Autopilot version 2.5 was released in 2017).  FSD technology is a $6,000.00 enhancement to Autopilot 3.0 (which Elon debuted at Autonomy Day last week) – it’s this that he would like to make available, if not in fact standard apparatus, on all of his models manufactured in the future – and which is the piece of technology at the center of Tesla’s request for a product exemption from the Trump Administration as this trade war with China moves forward.

Join us next week to view the conclusion of this two-part article.  In the meantime, along with all of you, we’ll curiously await the latest developments in our country’s trade war with China.

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