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.


Oil giants’ production cuts come to 1m bpd as they post massive write-downs

Updated 10 August 2020

Oil giants’ production cuts come to 1m bpd as they post massive write-downs

  • Crude output worldwide dropped sharply after the market crashed in April

LONDON: The world’s five largest oil companies collectively cut the value of their assets by nearly $50 billion in the second quarter, and slashed production rates as the coronavirus pandemic caused a drastic fall in fuel prices and demand.

The dramatic reductions in asset valuations and decline in output show the depth of the pain in the second quarter. Fuel demand at one point was down by more than 30 percent worldwide.

Several executives said they took massive write-downs because they expect demand to remain impaired for several more quarters as people travel less and use less fuel due to the ongoing global pandemic.

Of those five companies, only Exxon Mobil did not book sizeable impairments. But an ongoing reevaluation of its plans could lead to a “significant portion” of its assets being impaired, it reported, and signal the elimination of 20 percent or 4.4 billion barrels of its oil and gas reserves.

By contrast, BP took a $17 billion hit. It said it plans to recenter its spending in coming years around renewables and less on oil and natural gas.

Weak demand means oil producers must revisit business plans, said Lee Maginniss, managing director at consultants Alarez & Marsal. He said the goal should be to pump only what generates cash in excess of overhead costs.

“It’s low-cost production mode through the end of 2021 for sure, and to 2022 to the extent there are new development plans being contemplated,” Maginniss said.

London-based BP has previously said it plans to cut its overall output by roughly 1 million barrels of oil equivalent (BOEPD) by the end of 2030 from its current 3.6 million BOEPD.

Of the five, Exxon is the largest producer, with daily output of 3.64 million BOEPD, but its production dropped 408,000 BOEPD between the first and second quarters. The five majors, which include Chevron Corp, Royal Dutch Shell and Total SA, also cut capital expenditures by a combined $25 billion between the quarters.

Crude output worldwide dropped sharply after the market crashed in April. The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries agreed to cut output by nearly 10 million barrels a day to balance out supply and demand in the market.