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Autonomous driving: A bumpy path to a better world

The future of automated driving may be bright, but there are numerous obstacles along the way, as the past week showed. (Photo: Adobe Stock/Dudarev Mikhail)

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Christian Gressner
Christian Gressner
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Hello, automated driving community! Tesla under pressure, Byton on the move and automated technology to the rescue: we bring you this week’s key stories from the world of automated driving!

It was a rough week for Elon Musk. To make Tesla profitable and accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable, clean energy, Musk announced to lay off 9% of his staff – some 3,500 people.

Praise for the move came from an unlikely source: Some former employees expressed their understanding for the reorganization, including even their own dismissal. “I was laid off from Tesla yesterday and although it hurts (a lot!), it is the right thing for the company,” Kevin from Temecula, California, tweeted in response to Musk. “I don’t regret giving all I had and in a way bidding adieu is my last contribution.”

Investors also reacted positively. At the New York Stock Exchange, Tesla shares began a bumpy hike just after the layoffs became public, causing significant losses for traders who had been betting on falling share prices. But not everybody was happy. Musk’s announcement on Twitter quite naturally attracted the usual digital slurs. And the UK’s Guardian accused him of overpromising and underdelivering while pointing to high injury rates at a Tesla factory in Northern California.

Indeed, Musk’s bold promises must be taken with a grain of salt; and losing a job is certainly not something to be taken lightly. Additionally, a number of fatal accidents involving Tesla vehicles significantly undermined trust in autonomous driving technology.

But overall, by relentlessly pushing themselves as well as their competitors, pioneers such as Tesla serve innovative technologies well. Although Musk definitely hurts the case of automated driving with the infamous naming of the Tesla “Autopilot”, I still think that societies at large will reap a far greater benefit from the survival and eventual profitability of an innovator such as Tesla than from its bankruptcy. The latter would provide little more than the dubious pleasure of seeing a loudmouth go down.

Byton sends a dare from China

While not all is bleak for Elon Musk – his tunnel boring company was selected to build a high-speed underground commuter system from downtown Chicago to the city’s O’Hare airport –, Tesla also came under pressure from Chinese electric car maker Byton. One of the few competitors to rival Musk’s company in terms of design, Byton presented its new concept car at the Consumer Electronics Show in Shanghai. Its grille reminds Wired Magazine of “the kind of view you'd expect from the bridge of a starship headed into warp drive.” And Byton CEO Carsten Breitfeld is happy to send a dare to California: “This might sound a bit arrogant now, but we are making a claim for the design leadership in the car industry.” Absolutely, Carsten, it does. And it is worth mentioning that Byton hasn’t even started building, much less selling its first concept car presented earlier this year. But we are happy to take this, too, with a grain of salt as innovative technologies will likely benefit from the competition.

Saving lives. And money

The success of autonomous technology is far more important than the bullying between rival CEOs or the competition over design leadership indicates. A report commissioned by the Washington, DC based association Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE) found that automated vehicles could contribute an estimated $800 billion in annual social and economic benefits to US society by 2050. This will stem “mostly from reducing the toll of vehicle crashes, but also from giving productive time back to commuters, improving energy security by reducing dependence on oil and providing environmental benefits.”

A staggering 40,000 people die on US roads every year. Apart from the individual tragedy they cause, these accidents are a significant financial burden, as the SAFE study indicates. Accident related medical care, emergency services, legal and workplace costs, the property damage and the traffic costs amount to a material loss of $840 billion per year for the US economy. Automated vehicles are unlikely to do away with all accidents, but they could save a significant share of these costs.

So, while the promises of Musk, Breitfeld and others often seem outsized, let’s hope they deliver on parts of them at least. It will make the world a slightly better place.

So long, drive safely (until cars are driverless), 
Christian Gressner

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