Company / division: Carmakers
Nissan-Renault Plans to Combine Electrification, Automation and Mobility Within 10 Years (Jun 23, 2017)
Ex-Apple Engineer Chris Lattner Leaves Tesla After 5 Months (Jun 20, 2017)
This comparison leaked earlier in the week but Tesla has now made it official by posting it on its website (and Elon Musk pointed to it in a Tweet overnight). The only reason I’m including it is here is that it’s a great illustration of the hole Musk dug for himself with his puerile naming strategy for the Model 3 (he originally intended to name it the Model E, making the three current models the S, E, and X, but Ford objected so he flipped the E to a 3). That strategy has led many people to believe the Model 3 is the third iteration of the Tesla and therefore better than the other two models on offer, something Musk has been somewhat frustratedly trying to rectify for the last few months. This comparison, therefore, which is coming out months if not years ahead of the actual availability of the Model 3 to new buyers, seems almost entirely designed to clarify that confusion. Even the introduction makes the point Musk has been hammering home via Twitter recently: “Although it will be our newest vehicle, Model 3 is not “Version 3” or the most advanced Tesla”. All the specific side by side comparisons make clear that the Model 3 is indeed substantially inferior to the Model S – slower acceleration, shorter range, paid versus free supercharging, smaller passenger and cargo space, and so on. Again, this problem is entirely of Tesla’s own making, but also reflects an old problem in the tech industry: the Osborne effect, in which announcing a new version of a product while still trying to sell an earlier one reduces sales of the one currently available. This is just a unique spin on that particular problem given that the Model 3 isn’t actually a successor to the Model S.
It might seem odd at first glance that I’m covering an auto industry leadership change, but it’s news that’s very much in keeping with the “Tech Disrupts Transportation” narrative here on the site, and the nature of both the troubles that prompted the move and the move itself are reflective of that trend too. Mark Fields, who has been CEO for the last three years, is being replaced by Jim Hackett, who has been running Ford Smart Mobility. Although this New York Times piece and others this morning are focusing on the fact that FSM and therefore Hackett has owned Ford’s autonomous driving initiatives, that’s only part of its remit, and that’s worth noting. It also owns in-car connectivity, mobility itself (which is the industry term for ride sharing and other new ownership and other business models for cars), and data and analytics, among other things. In other words, with the exception of electrification, it has owned essentially all of what’s next in the automotive industry. That Fields would have put all that in a separate division is perhaps the biggest sign that he underestimated how central these changes would be to the future of the company, and it also makes sense to put the guy who’s been running all that in charge of the company at this point. Hackett will need to bring these initiatives to the forefront of what Ford does, along with electrification, where it’s moved more slowly than other car companies, if he’s to help turn Ford around. But he’s taking over at a really tough time in both the company’s history and the US automotive industry.
I’m on record as being very skeptical that Tesla can achieve its production targets for the Model 3, given both its patchy track record on meeting such targets in the past and the massive ramp the Model 3 production schedule entails. This report from Reuters suggests that Tesla is banking in part on an unusual strategy for manufacturing, under which it will move straight to ordering and installing the final assembly line tooling, rather than testing the manufacturing process with “soft tooling”, which is easier and cheaper to replace if something’s not working. That skips a stage in the production ramp, which should accelerate things, but will only work if Tesla’s computer modeling is effective in helping it get the tools order right first time. So it’s definitely a gamble, and one which could either pay off in a big way and allow Tesla to get to its target production more quickly, or actually delay production or lead to defects in the cars. Even with this approach to manufacturing, it’s still not clear to me that Tesla can accelerate its output fast enough to meet its targets. So while there’s some upside in that it may get somewhat closer to meeting its goals, the downside is potentially much bigger if things go wrong. What’s crazy here, of course, is that all these challenging deadlines are entirely self-imposed – it’s Tesla that insists on promising so much and then underdelivering.
Elon Musk Tweets About Future Tesla Products Including Semi and Pickup Trucks and a Convertible (Apr 13, 2017)
GM has filed for and received a tax credit in the sum of $8 million from the state of California in return for investing $14 million in office space and related items this year and committing to hire 1163 employees over the next five years for its self-driving tech subsidiary Cruise. Given how the importance of autonomous driving technology will grow in the coming years and the fact that California is the hub of much of the testing, it’s logical that GM would want to increase its base there significantly. However, these 1163 employees represent a more than three-fold increase in its employee base in the state, and the average salary GM is projecting for those employees is $116,000, so my guess is they’ll mostly be skilled engineers.
Cadillac takes aim at Tesla’s Autopilot with ‘hands-free’ Super Cruise technology – The Verge (Apr 10, 2017)
One of my big objections to Tesla’s Autopilot technology has always been the name, which connotes a level of autonomy the system doesn’t actually aspire to and which it certainly doesn’t deliver. Tesla has partly dealt with that issue by updating its software to require users to keep their hands on the wheel, but does little else to ensure attention, which means that even when the system performs as it should, there’s little guarantee that the human driver will. Cadillac today announced a new Autopilot-like feature but very sensibly named it in a way much more likely to give buyers and users an accurate impression of what it does, tying it to the very familiar cruise control already in almost all new cars. However, the more important thing in my view is that the system also comes with lots of protections designed to ensure that the driver does actually pay attention, which is a huge issue in situations where attention but not activity is required, such as driving a car with this kind of intelligent cruise control running. There’s a long history of scientific research in this area, and it all says that paying attention in a passive way like this is something human beings aren’t good at, and Cadillac’s new system is designed to help the driver stay attentive. The big question about this new system, though, is that although it’s being billed as LIDAR-based, it’s not using a LIDAR in the car but instead using mapping data previously generated by LIDAR, which means it’s non-real-time. That, in turn, means that if anything has changed in the road environment since the map was generated, the car won’t know about it, and GM doesn’t seem to have talked much about how frequently it’s going to update its maps of US and Canadian highways to mitigate this.
via The Verge
Tesla is now worth more than Ford after delivering a record number of cars for the quarter – Recode (Apr 3, 2017)
There are two things here: firstly, Tesla’s Q1 delivery number, and secondly what’s happened to its share price since it was announced. Stock valuations are interesting, but far from definitive as indications of what companies are worth or who’s “winning” in any meaningful sense. Tesla’s stock price is all about trajectory, and an unusual (perhaps even unwarranted) amount of investor confidence and enthusiasm that the company which is currently very small and unprofitable compared to its legacy peers will quickly catch up on both fronts. That, in turn, requires believing in Tesla’s manufacturing projections, which require a massive increase in its growth rate, from 56% annual growth in the past year to something much faster to hit its 500k target for 2018, which would be a six-fold increase over its 2016 numbers. Long-term, it seems very likely Tesla will reach that kind of scale, but given its track record, there’s every reason to believe it will hit this and other related targets later than it has projected. On that basis, then, the valuation seems that much less justifiable on the basis of any near-to-medium-term results.
This article is based on a study by a company called Navigant Research, and it seems to be an evaluating of companies’ strategic assets rather than any actual capabilities today, so it’s worth noting that context for their rankings of companies here. Notably, they rank traditional carmakers in the first six spots, with Waymo apparently the first non-traditional / tech company in the rankings. That’s notable, because all the numbers suggest Waymo is out in front in testing of autonomous driving technology in California by a long way, and although we don’t have equivalent data for Michigan, where Ford does much of its testing, I’d be surprised if it had done many more miles. So this is mostly an evaluation of the benefits the big automakers derive from their existing massive scale and capabilities in building vehicles and bringing them to market, something none of the pure tech companies has (Tesla, of course, has some small-scale manufacturing capability and is looking to ramp fast, but comes in 12th in the rankings nonetheless). This jives with my perception that, even as these tech companies do increasingly well in developing their own technology, they’re very unlikely in most cases to build the cars, and as such the traditional car companies are still in a position of strength and potential leadership when it comes to actually building and deploying the technology.
via USA Today
China’s Tencent Buys 5% Stake in Tesla – WSJ (Mar 28, 2017)
Tencent has been one of the most active Chinese investors in the US tech industry, and here’s another investment. It already has stakes in both Uber and Lyft, and although Baidu has been making bigger direct investments in autonomous driving in the US, Tencent’s indirect investments in transportation in the US are growing. This is a nice vote of confidence in Tesla at a time when it’s trying to raise money to fund the Model 3 manufacturing ramp, and it also gives Tencent decent exposure to what has been a nice growth stock so far this year.
I think it’s safe to say that Tesla’s plans for Model 3 manufacturing represent the biggest test the company and Elon Musk have faced by a long way. The ramp contemplated is so rapid and takes the company so far beyond its historical production rate that it seems almost impossible for it to meet its targets. And yet here it is raising more money to fund what’s going to be a massive capital spend in the first half of the year to prepare for that production run that’s scheduled to begin in July. In the first half of last year, the company spent around half a billion dollars on capex, and it plans to spend $2-2.5 billion in the first half of 2017, which gives some sense of just how big the leap is from anything the company has done in the past. That’s going to cause a massive cash drain, hence the new funding. Musk continues to execute extremely well on his long-term plans eventually, but hitting short-term targets continues to be his big weakness, and it feels like the Model 3 is either going to be the worst example of that flaw or the biggest possible exception to the pattern. I’m betting it’s the former.
California DMV: Humans soon no longer required in self-driving cars – San Francisco Chronicle (Mar 10, 2017)
Michigan’s autonomous driving laws already allow testing of cars without drivers, and given that these two states are home to much of the testing going on, California clearly feels it needs to keep up. Those Michigan laws assume that carmakers are going to comply with all applicable regulations, and therefore require that any testing is done by or in partnership with those carmakers, while the proposed California law has no such restrictions (logical given the biggest local testers are tech companies and now legacy automakers). In both cases, the states are deferring somewhat to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to set the overall rules and to some extent approve cars for autonomous driving without a driver. This Chronicle piece quotes a spokesperson from Consumer Watchdog, which has been particularly harsh (perhaps deservedly so) on Uber/Otto, but also seems to be one of the main organizations demanding tougher regulation of autonomous driving in general in California. What’s interesting is that there are so few voices on the other side of this rapid push towards autonomous driving.