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Tesla’s Autopilot Crash

Though expensive, and greatly subsidized by tax money, Tesla’s Model S is a great series of electric vehicles. They are a significant improvement to the Roadster, and offer good range, great performance, and distinctive styling. Clean Car Calculator tells us that the Model S 40 would be responsible for about half the greenhouse gases as a comparably-priced Audi or BMW, though about 30% more than a Toyota Prius. Tesla didn’t sell many 40s, so we have to assume the 60s and 90s are comparable.

As reported almost everywhere, though, an Ohio man driving a Model S on a Florida highway was killed when he drove on autopilot into and mostly under the trailer section of a tractor trailer truck that was turning onto the highway ahead. Neither the driver nor the autopilot engaged the brakes. There have been contradictory reports explaining why.

The first reports I read speculated that the white trailer would have been hard for either the driver or the autopilot to notice against the brightly-lit sky. Even if he missed the trailer, I found it hard to believe that a human driver would not see the side or back of the cab of the truck. Or that the car driver would fail to notice the engine noise and the exhaust smoke as the truck accelerated. Humans are programmed to see, hear and smell danger.

Another report speculates that the autopilot may have interpreted the flat surface of the trailer as an overhead highway sign, which it is programmed to disregard. Given that highway signs are mounted much higher than the surface of a trailer, the autopilot parameters would have to have been really boneheaded to allow such a mistake.

The truck driver claims he could hear a movie playing as the car went through the trailer, but as he is likely to be cited for failure to grant right-of-way, he may not be the most impartial witness. Reuters quoted the first witness on the scene, who owns the adjacent property, saying there was no movie playing, “There was no music. I was at the car. Right at the car,” but a later witness said he could hear the movie playing and troopers said they found a portable player still playing a Harry Potter film. Perhaps the first witness simply happened along during a quiet part of the film.

While many folk are exploiting the crash to criticize autonomous cars as fatally-flawed, Tesla reminds drivers that their autopilot system is still in beta testing, and that the autopilot ran 130 million miles before failure, which is better than the human-piloted average.

Gizmodo doubles down on more technology. In, Fatal Tesla Crash Proves Full Autonomy Is the Only Solution for Self-Driving Cars, they assert that, “If the tractor-trailer had also been fully autonomous—heck, if both cars simply had the very basic connected vehicle tech that the NHTSA is making standard on all cars—the truck would have communicated with the Tesla long before any potential crash.”

As a grumpy old man, I’m not a strong believer in self-driving cars. I can see that certain tools might have their place, but even if my rental car has a backup screen, I still use the rear view mirror just to be sure. I see this particular accident as an example of a gung-ho, tech-savvy driver relying too much on a tool that wasn’t yet good enough to trust with his life.

Tesla Crush

With all the snow in January, and a sore leg, instead of biking or walking I was waiting for buses a lot. I noticed a lot of upscale cars passing by the bus shelter, including more Teslas than I would have expected. Treehugger was one of many that announced, Tesla sales crush every every other large luxury car in the market. Many of those articles were citing sales numbers from EVObsession’s article, Tesla Crushing Incumbents In Large Luxury Segment. EVO divided 2015 US sales numbers by model, which put Tesla’s Model S at the top, but below I have combined them by manufacturer:

28,806   Mercedes-Benz S & CLS Class
25,502   Tesla Model S
17,438   BMW 7 & 6 Series
12,711   Audi A7 & A8
7,165   Lexus LS
4,985   Porsche Panamera
3,611   Jaguar XJ

Despite no appreciable dealer network, Tesla is competing well against Daimler-Benz, BMW and VW/Audi in the luxury segment. The Model S is the only car to have seen increased sales (+51%), the rest dropping some five to sixteen percent from 2014 to 2015. It makes sense that smart people with means would be hedging against an eventual rise in oil prices by purchasing a car with a very serviceable range that can be charged at home. The Tesla even carries an aura of environmental responsibility, though it accelerates better than the ICE models against which it competes.

After seeing these numbers, one might expect that Tesla’s introduction of the the $35,000 Tesla Model 3 will be another eventual victory. But according to former TTAC alum Ed Niedermeyer, writing for Bloomberg, Tesla Will Get Trampled by the Mass Market:

 … what explains the company’s dismal earnings report on Wednesday and the 40 percent plunge in its shares this year? … Perhaps it’s because investors finally understand that the company is going to struggle mightily to ramp up production to the scale required to compete outside its luxury niche. Think about it: If even with all its hype and brand prestige it can’t make money on its high-price, low-volume Models S and X, why should anyone expect Tesla to do so on a new car that starts at half the price? … a huge amount of each unit’s cost would still be tied up in expensive batteries, where savings are going to be very difficult. Tesla will have to cut costs to the bone to reach the targeted price for Model 3, meaning all the features that surprised and delighted consumers in the Model S — long range, rapid acceleration, a high-tech interior and innovative design– will be lost.

In addition to Niedermeyer’s points, Tesla is what the energy depletion crowd calls a Subsidy Dumpster. As I previously quoted from the LA Times:

Tesla Motors Inc., SolarCity Corp. and Space Exploration Technologies Corp., known as SpaceX, together have benefited from an estimated $4.9 billion in government support, according to data compiled by The Times. The figure underscores a common theme running through his emerging empire: a public-private financing model underpinning long-shot start-ups. …

If that support should dry up, or be insufficient against Model 3 losses, Tesla will go under, or will be bought out by one of its major competitors.


As I’ve blogged before, one of the old Lil Abner strips featured plans for a car that ran directly off of smog, which was Al Capp’s excuse to draw nervous fat cat oil executives. That was fiction. In 2008, the New York Times reported that two scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory had a plan, Green Freedom, to remove smog from the air and turn it into fuel. Their plan was all based on existing technology, but was a net energy loser requiring a huge factory powered by a dedicated nuclear powerplant to be remotely feasible. That might as well have been fiction.

Now, Tailpipe to Tank, a feature article in Science Magazine reports on a solar reactor that could use the energy in sunlight to change carbon dioxide and water into hydrogen and carbon monoxide – which can be the basis for liquid hydrocarbon fuels, which they call, Sungas.

It is only one of the solar fuel technologies taking shape in labs around the world. They embody a dream: the prospect of one day bypassing fossil fuels and generating our transportation fuels from sunlight, air, and water—and in the process ridding the atmosphere of some of the CO2 that our fossil fuel addiction has dumped into it.

These schemes are no threat to the oil industry yet. In Licht’s device, parts of the reactor run at temperatures approaching 1000°C, high enough to require specialized materials to hold the components. Other researchers are pursuing an alternative approach, developing catalysts that could carry out the same chemical reactions at or near room temperature, using electricity from sunlight or other renewables to power the chemical knitting process.

Sungas would be costly, too, one favorable estimate being $2.61 per gallon – a penny more per gallon than predicted for the Los Alamos scheme. The low temperature reaction works best with gold as the catalyst, but less expensive materials could be made to work. The current challenge is that with low demand, crude oil has dropped to about $50 per barrel, so alternative fuels – even from tar sands – just cost too much to justify seed money.

Optimists in the science community believe that society will always need liquid fuels no matter the price. At Science Blogs, Greg Laden writes:

This and other methods of making a sun, water, and air based liquid fuel would at least initially be expensive. But who cares? If we convert most of our energy to motion machinery to electric, we won’t need that much, and the remaining uses will be relatively specialized. So what if a hospital has to pay $10.00 a gallon to have a thousand gallons of fuel for use as a backup source of energy to run generators during emergencies? That would be a tiny fraction of the cost of running a hospital. A tiny fraction of a fraction.

But it remains to be seen whether electric vehicles will prosper without massive government subsidies, and without motion vehicles, there may not be a sophisticated enough culture to produce and need expensive liquid fuels.

Update 20150918: At the Scienceblogs link above, in the comments, Laden makes the truly stunning argument that EROI – energy return on investment – is, “a red herring and not of much interest.” In a later comment:

In principle it is of interest. There are two or three problems

One is that in so many cases, especially when it comes to clean alternatives that are not even in production, the number is pretty much irrelevant to what would actually happen if we went into production.

Another problem is that it is just about energy and ignores other costs and benefits. These are often far more important.

Another (when comparing across totally different energy source types, as was bandied about above) is that if I need a liquid and you’re talking to me about the difference between a solid and a liquid, I don’t need to know that. I needed the liquid.

Similarly, there are simply certain pathways that we want to use no matter what. I might want to have no imports of petroleum into a region where there is nothing native. Comparing petroleum to non petroleum sources would be irrelevant. There may be something about storage under specific conditions that matters a lot more to me than EROI.

The real problem is the fetishizing of EROI. If something has a bad EROI then it has to dance backwards and in high heels, even if it is really a preferred energy source for a gazillion other reasons.

It is like Godwin’s law. Eventually the conversation will go off track because of EROI even if it shouldn’t.

So it is of interest, but of interest does not equal “the main thing.”

Riding a girl’s bike

My folding Xootr Swift is being serviced, but we’re waiting on some parts, so they gave me a loaner. Light Street Cycles is an A2B dealer, and Penny let me try out a Ferber electric bike for the weekend.

A2B used to be called Ultra Motors, and a few years ago was known for the Metro electric bike, which looks like a tiny motorcycle. That model is now called the Octave, after Octave Chanute, an engineer who pioneered the use of wood preservatives and who, in retirement, contributed wing designs to aviation. Other A2B models have names like Alva, Galvani, Shima and Ferber – all named after experimenters in electricity or transportation. Ferdinand Ferber was also in aviation, Hideo Shima was behind the bullet train, Luigi Galvani explored bioelectricity and Alva is Thomas Edison’s middle name. A2B is now part of India’s Hero Eco.

When I showed the Ferber to my wife, she said, “that looks like a girl’s bike.” Well, yes, or maybe like a skinny scooter. The Ferber is a step-through bike with 26″ wheels, assisted by a 350w motor powered by a 36V 8.8 Ah battery. The Galvani / Male has the same set of components on a retro step-over frame. Even with an open frame the Ferber is 48 lbs to the Galvani’s 50 lbs. Both models are strictly pedal assist (PAS) with no throttle.

I rode the Ferber home and even though the motor stops helping above 20 mph, I was passing all the traditional cyclists while pedaling easily. Once I found the buttons for levels 2 and 3, it became very easy to climb hills, even with only eight gears. The A2B torque sensor is great, but you must be careful to shift down while stopping. The riding position is very upright, and the handle bars have flat, ergonometric rests so that your palms don’t start to feel numb after several miles. At one point I accidentally turned the bike off, but was able to fiddle with the battery button and get it restarted. Apparently you are supposed to turn the battery on, as evidenced by some faint led displays, then push and hold a button on the handlebar. If you hold the battery button too long, you might turn it off again.

I was down to 10% charge, and the recharge took the rest of the evening and a half hour in the morning. According to the manual, charging to 80% is fairly quick, but the last 20% can take some time. Some batteries should not be topped off, but there are no warnings in the manual against doing so.

The Ferber suggests a 40 mile range, but I’m a 250 lb man, and riding the hilly ten miles into Federal Hill on Saturday took the battery from a full charge to 67%. Fortunately the elevator was still on, and since no one was around I parked the Ferber next to my desk. One of the partners showed up, and noticed that the bike seemed a lot bigger than what I usually bring to work. Bill takes spinning classes for the exercise, but had no idea that electric bikes were even a thing.

Someone turned off the elevator, and wrestling the bigger bike down the u-shaped exit stairs was a tight fit. Riding uphill back to Mt Washington (with two icepacks, yogurt and pork chops in an insulated pack) in the afternoon took the battery down to 12%, so my range seems to be about 25 miles. In all fairness, I hardly broke a sweat going either way.

I’ve seen the Ferber priced at about $2,400 and the Galvani at about $2,300, which is very competitive for 350w lithium-ion battery bikes. Add that the bikes already include lights, disc brakes, fenders and a kickstand, and either would be a great deal.

Tesla Runs on Green Stuff

When I rode my bike into the light rail station this morning, the lot was almost empty, but my eyes flashed to the Tesla logo on a sporty white car at one of the two charging stations. After buying my ticket, I walked over to have a look. It was a new all-wheel drive Model S 70D, with temporary paper tags from Washington DC. The EV was plugged in to the charger from the adjacent space, which suggests that the owner wasn’t able to make the first one work.

The Model S is a beautiful vehicle with many streamlining touches, such as recessed door handles and a rounded, plastic nose instead of the usual air-catching front grille. The 70D claims a 240-mile range and a base price of $75,000, replacing the “entry-level” rear-wheel drive 60, which had a stated range of 208 miles and listed for just under $70K. Above the 70D are the rear-wheel drive 85, at $80K, all-wheel drive 85D and “performance” versions P85 and P85D. As with horsepower numbers in Beach Boys songs, those two digit numbers represent the kWh that each model can deliver, which is a measure of energy expended over time. (For comparison, an electric bike’s wattage might convert to between 1/2 to 1 kWh, with a range of 15 to 30 miles.) But Model S versions have impressive horsepower numbers too, and much more comforting ranges than the 70 to 100 miles you’d expect in a Nissan Leaf:

60: 306 hp, 208 miles
70D: 329 hp, 240 miles
85: 362 hp, 265 miles
85D: 422hp, 270 miles
P85: 470 hp, 270 miles
P85D: 691 hp, 300 miles

Recharging at home every night, you could probably drive one of these for months before needing to recharge at a public station. Tesla has installed a series of fast-charging stations along highways, and other charging stations will work, though more slowly. Nevertheless, my office space neighbor complained about being stuck behind a Tesla doing 45 on the beltway – the driver probably trying to make it to a charge station after letting the range get too low.

Teslas seem to be a greener choice than a Mercedes or BMW – which is probably why David Crosby drives one – but as described in the LA Times, Elon Musk’s growing empire is fueled by $4.9 billion in government subsidies.

Los Angeles entrepreneur Elon Musk has built a multibillion-dollar fortune running companies that make electric cars, sell solar panels and launch rockets into space.

And he’s built those companies with the help of billions in government subsidies.

Tesla Motors Inc., SolarCity Corp. and Space Exploration Technologies Corp., known as SpaceX, together have benefited from an estimated $4.9 billion in government support, according to data compiled by The Times. The figure underscores a common theme running through his emerging empire: a public-private financing model underpinning long-shot start-ups. …

Musk and his investors have also put large sums of private capital into the companies.

But public subsidies for Musk’s companies stand out both for the amount, relative to the size of the companies, and for their dependence on them.

So like ethanol and some wind power projects, Tesla cars may only be around until the government money dries up, which may explain why Elon Musk is diversifying into other battery ventures like Solar City photovoltaic systems and Hyperloop public transit.

Doing the Zipcar thing

Many years ago, I didn’t have a car in Baltimore, but the four Zipcar locations in the city were around Johns Hopkins, not terribly close to where I lived and worked. After I moved to a garden apartment, where I parked a car every night and most days, Zipcar spots seemed to spring up all around my office. I wrote about them in 2010, and my coblogger Mike offered his experiences zipping in New York City.

Five years later I am again without an infernal combustion vehicle, so I can take advantage of all these cars for the sharing. I joined Zipcar a few weeks ago, and took my first voyage today. I had to verify some measurements for a client in Rockville MD – too far for a bike ride – so I reserved a Honda Civic that “lives” in a parking garage a few blocks away. I reserved from 8 AM to 1 PM, which worked out to three dollars more than walking over to Enterprise to rent a car all day for $40.

Keeping a car overnight could be handy for shopping and other chores, but I’m a bit annoyed with Enterprise. Two weeks ago I showed up for a weekend rental and they had no record of the reservation I had made online, and no extra cars. I had to walk back to my office, print out the confirming email and walk back to Enterprise. Then they had a car for me. And of course they always try to sell me extra insurance.

So I tried Zipcar. Getting the car was easy. I walked into the parking garage, and it was parked right next to the attendant’s booth. Unlocking it with the card was simple, but the Civic was a tight squeeze and I couldn’t make the seat go any farther back. As soon as I started the engine, I could see the parking attendant disappearing into a doorway. I found the parking pass in the visor and waited patiently by the gate only to have her come back and tell me that I could have swiped the card myself on a small box.

The fuel level was a bit low, but I made it through heavy traffic on I-95 (Amtrak crash) without incident. On the Route 200 toll road I put the office EZ Pass on the dash, not noticing that the Zipcar has its own EZ Pass next to the rear view mirror. I wonder if they both got charged the toll?

After my appointment, I swapped out the Zipcar EZPass with ours, then drove until I got a low fuel alert. I took an exit and found an Exxon station on Randolph Road. As usual I hadn’t noticed which side of the car had the filler cap. As usual I guessed wrong and had to pull around. Zipcar also includes a gas purchase card in the visor. Instructions were to swipe the card then enter the odometer reading – which did not display because I had stopped the car. So I restarted and got the number, then swiped the card, entered that number and my Gas ID number – which didn’t take. So I gave it the other number on my card, and got the dreaded three words, Please See Cashier.

The cashier asked me how much gas I needed. I wanted to fill it, but he needed a number, and suggested $40. I guessed $30. He had me swipe the card again, enter the Gas ID number again, and, inside, it worked. He said, “Computers only think they are smarter than us.” He said they would refund any difference to the card. It was $29.12.

Dropping off the car was easy, too. I was an hour and twenty minutes early, and therein lies the problem with Zipcar. You get no credit for returning early, but a $50/hr penalty for being late. So you have to be fairly certain just how long you need the vehicle. If you guess long, you pay for an hour or more you don’t need. If you guess short, you get hosed. If you have no idea about time needed, you will be better off to rent a full day from Enterprise, Hertz, National or Avis, which now owns Zipcar.

We’ll Always (cough) Have Paris

There has been a steady effort to market fuel-efficient, “clean” diesels in the US. Some cars even feature “biodiesel” with a small percentage – 2%, 5% or 20% – of the fuel sourced from vegetable oil rather than crude oil. Diesels are more fuel efficient than gasoline engines, and have a reputation for durability, but are they such a good idea?

Diesels are très populaire in Europe, and subsidized in France, but as reported in an interview by LeMonde, Mayor Anne Hidalgo has submitted an emission control plan that will banish older, polluting vehicles – especially diesels – from the interior streets of Paris, beginning July 2015. She says that even modern diesel filters don’t capture the fine particles that are most dangerous to health. According to the European Environment Agency (EEA) Paris averages of 147 microgrammes of particulate matter (PM) per cubic metre of air – while Brussels averaged 114, Amsterdam 104, Berlin 81 and London 79.7.

As translated by France 24, Hidalgo said, “We are determined to act quickly, … The fine particles emitted mostly by public buses and coaches are a major health concern. … It is true that older diesel vehicles are more polluting than modern ones, but the filters in even the latest models can’t get rid of the most dangerous fine particles.”

As in nearly 200 European cities, Paris will designate a, “low emission zone,” which will gradually prohibit the dirtiest emitting vehicles, with a complete ban by 2020. Discussions seem to be underway for Paris to partially fund a transition to electric utility and delivery vehicles.

“This will include up to 50 percent of the cost price, with low-rate loans to cover the rest,” Hidalgo said. “We are already in talks with banks and shops as well as transport companies to get this in place.”

Parisians’ ownership of automobiles has dropped from 60% to 40% since 2001, but Hidalgo also intends to provide incentives for greater use of electric car-sharing (Autolib), personal EVs and bikes.

As reported in The Connexion, many owners of older vehicles have not embraced the plan, and motorbike riders took to the streets:

HUNDREDS of motorcyclists ignored a police ban and took to the streets of Paris yesterday to protest against plans to stop motorbikes made before 2000 taking to the city’s streets – and there are plans to repeat the rally in front of City Hall today.

Describing the plans as “pure nonsense”, the French Federation of Angry Bikers (FFMC), which has organised both protests said in a statement that, “because of their low fuel consumption, reduced size, mobility and shorter journey times, they are a solution to the congestion of urban traffic and of value in the fight against pollution.

But the plan could boost sales of the electric Renault Zoe, and Hidalgo appears to want something to show off when Paris hosts the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 21) in December 2015.