Long road ahead for fully self-driving cars, despite Tesla claim

A Tesla SuperCharger station in Los Angeles, the US. (Reuters)
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Updated 11 July 2020

Long road ahead for fully self-driving cars, despite Tesla claim

WASHINGTON: The road to fully self-driving vehicles remains riddled with obstacles, with years of refinements likely needed, despite Tesla founder Elon Musk’s claim to be able to produce one this year.
Musk’s suggestion that Tesla is nearing “Level 5” autonomy appeared to stun the sector, which has repeatedly pushed back forecasts for vehicles able to operate without human help.
The Tesla founder and CEO said in a message to a Shanghai technology fair that he was “extremely confident that ‘Level 5,’ or essentially complete autonomy, will happen . . . very quickly.”
He maintained that he expected “the basic functionality” of Level 5 to be “complete this year.”
But analysts say that the pledge appeared to be hyperbole from Musk, who had pledged to deliver self-driving cars by 2018, and more recently promised to deploy robo-taxis by 2020.
“We’re still a long way from a true Level 4 system, so the ‘very close to Level 5’ comment seems out of nowhere, especially given the reset people have had in recent years,” said Paul Lewis, who heads policy research at the nonprofit Eno Center for Transportation.
Lewis said there was “tremendous excitement” several years ago about the potential for full autonomy, but it has since waned.
“Technology developers are starting to realize the limits of artificial intelligence and the benefits of the human brain in handling some of these tasks.”
Raj Rajkumar, a Carnegie Mellon University engineering professor and co-director of the school’s auto technology research lab, said he was highly skeptical as well.
The recent claim “may be just another technique by Tesla to realize more of the revenue” from the semi-autonomous system the company uses, the researcher said.
“We have been many times here before,” Rajkumar said, citing Tesla’s prior pledges on full autonomy.
Tesla is in a fierce race with tech firms and other automakers for the lead in self-driving technology.

 

The California electric carmaker became the world’s most valuable auto manufacturer earlier this month, and its shares have soared amid strong demand, even as it produces only a fraction of the vehicles of many rivals. The former Google car division now known as Waymo operates a test program in Arizona at Level 4 autonomy. That means a vehicle does not need a driver but operates in a geographically circumscribed area.
But Lewis said that the Waymo system has limits because “there is still some level of monitoring,” with a remote system that could require a human to take over.
Ed Niedermeyer, head of communications for Partners for Automated Vehicle Education (PAVE), which includes nonprofit organizations and auto technology firms (but not Tesla) said Level 4 is the major focus of the group’s members. “The reason companies are not talking about Level 5 is that you’re talking about drinking from the firehose of randomness.”
Level 5 means a vehicle can handle any situation, any type of weather or any terrain without human assistance — a tall order, in Niedermeyer’s view.
Level 4, however, would “reduce the number of variables,” in part by operating within a specific area, whether an enclosed test site, a college campus or even an entire city. “There’s no single technical standard for Level 4; you can define it for yourself,” said Niedermeyer.
Some analysts warn that promoting a system as autonomous could lead motorists to make dangerous assumptions and neglect the steering wheel, with potentially fatal consequences.
Tesla has been criticized over a number of accidents involving drivers using its “Autopilot” program. “There is a danger in promoting self-driving capabilities that are not accurate,” Lewis said.
Autopilot, he noted, is a Level 2 system that requires drivers to be attentive at all times.

Decoder

Waymo Level 5

Waymo Level 5 describes autonomous vehicles capable of handling any situation, any type of weather or any terrain without human assistance.


Gold rush at Turkish bazaar a test of trust for lowly lira

Updated 15 August 2020

Gold rush at Turkish bazaar a test of trust for lowly lira

  • As precious metal prices soar, Turks rush to buy amid economic uncertainty and a volatile currency

ISTANBUL: Hasan Ayhan followed his wife’s instructions last week and took their savings to buy gold at Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar as Turks scooped up bullion worth $7 billion in a just a fortnight.

With memories of a currency crisis which rocked Turkey’s economy only two years ago fresh in his mind, the retired police officer was among those playing it safe as he queued in the city’s sprawling market, where a screen showed the gold price rise by one Turkish lira ($0.1366) in just 10 minutes.

“I think it is the best investment right now so I converted my dollars to buy gold,” the 57-year-old said. “I might withdraw my lira and buy gold with it too, but I am scared to go to the bank right now because of coronavirus.”

The day after Ayhan bought his gold on Aug. 6, the lira hit a historic low and remains skittish, laying bare concerns that Turkey’s reserves have been badly depleted by market interventions, which are showing signs of fizzling out.

Turks traditionally use gold for savings and there may be 5,000 tons of it “under mattresses,” with more added after the recent buying spree, Mehmet Ali Yildirimturk, deputy head of an Istanbul gold shops association, said.

Although bullion has never been more expensive, vendors at the Grand Bazaar said almost no one was selling their gold jewelry. There are only buyers.

HIGHLIGHTS

  • Currency touched record lows in three volatile weeks.
  • Local holdings of hard currencies at all-time high.
  • All are buyers at Grand Bazaar, despite expensive gold.

“I’ve been chatting with hundreds of people who are thinking about selling their cars or houses to invest in gold,” vendor Gunay Gunes said.

In the last three weeks, as selling gripped the lira, local holdings of hard assets such as dollars and gold jumped $15 billion to a record of nearly $220 billion.

There is no evidence suggesting people are about to pull savings from banks, and this week the lira has hovered around 7.3 versus the dollar, although it remains among the worst emerging-market performers this year.

Demand has eased since Turks withdrew some $2 billion in hard foreign cash from their banks during a March-May period in which a lockdown was imposed and the lira hit its last low. Analysts say that if Ankara cannot boost confidence in the currency, which has fallen almost 20 percent this year, import-heavy Turkey risks inflation and even a balance of payments crisis that will worsen fallout from the coronavirus crisis.

Given foreign investors now have only a small stake in Turkish assets, they say the key for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government is convincing Turks to stop turning to the perceived stability of dollars and gold.

The central bank and treasury did not immediately comment on the dollarization trend or any policy response.

Finance Minister Berat Albayrak, Erdogan’s son-in-law, said on Wednesday the lira’s competitiveness was more important than exchange rate volatility.

The central bank has effectively borrowed on local dollar liquidity to fuel foreign exchange market interventions, which are meant to stabilize the lira.

Through Turkish state banks, which together are “short” foreign exchange by $12 billion, the central bank has sold over $110 billion since last year. In turn, the bank’s gross FX buffer has fallen by nearly half this year to below $47 billion, its lowest in years.

The central bank has said its reserves naturally fluctuate in stressful periods, and the treasury says the bank intervenes at times to stabilize the currency.

But ratings agencies say Ankara should take decisive steps, such as an interest rate hike, to rebuild reserves and restore confidence. Otherwise, rising current account deficits and possible debt defaults could tarnish a solid reputation for meeting foreign obligations.

“Locals don’t want to keep Turkish lira, they’ve been dollarizing and buying gold. Turks have hardly ever done that,” said Shamaila Khan, New York-based head of EM debt strategy at AllianceBernstein, which manages $600 billion. “That is why you need proactive policies because if you get to that stage where locals are unwilling to keep their money in the bank then you’re heading to a balance of payments crisis. That’s when the alarm bells will start ringing.” 

Some banks imposed fees on withdrawals this week, while the central bank has curbed cheap credit channels it opened to ease the coronavirus fallout. Yet while lira deposits now earn more than the 8.25 percent policy rate, their real return is negative with inflation at 11.8 percent.

Traders say such backdoor tightening needs to reach 11.25 percent to stabilize the lira, which has nearly halved in value since early 2018.

Market expectations have risen for a formal rate hike that economists say would reinforce central bank independence, even while it could slow economic recovery.

Politics may stand in the way.Erdogan, whose popularity has dipped this year, holds the view that high rates cause inflation, and sacked the last central bank governor for disobedience.

He said on Monday he hoped market rates would fall further.

But firms such as System Denim, which imports materials and makes clothes for companies like Zara and Diesel, are feeling the pinch from rising costs. Owner Seref Fayat said he converted his 4 percent euro-denominated loans to lira at 10 percent. “No need to take on additional FX risk,” he said. “I pay a higher rate, but at least I can see ahead.”