Self-driving vertigo: Mobileye, Ford, and Tesla safety

The same day self-driving car technology company Mobileye emerged again as a public company, Ford announced it will wind down its Argo AI effort to create high-level advanced driver assistance systems in favor of lower-level approaches it will develop internally.

Then, reports surfaced that Tesla is under a US criminal probe over claims its vehicles can drive themselves.

With at least some Argo engineers likely to get pink slips, the future for autonomous vehicles may seem dim. (Ford said, somewhat ominously, that “talented” Argo engineers will be given roles inside Ford.)

The Mobileye IPO, at least on its first day, seems to have been a hit, possibly a bright spot in a distressing earnings season where every CEO has polished off words expressing concerns about “global macroeconomic conditions” that are a mix of: on again/off again supply chain woes, a looming global and serious recession, 8% inflation, rising hospitalizations for viruses, an unending shortage of engineers especially in security fields-- and on and on.

Mobileye started Wednesday under the symbol MBLY at $21 a share, then finished the day up by 38% at $28.97, although the coming week will decide if investors really like the IPO or not. (IPOs have experienced a dismal year in general.)  On Thursday, MBLY opened down to $26.96.

Over at Ford, CEO Jim Farley crystalized the discourse over the future of autonomous vehicles (AVs), at least for many: “We’re optimistic about a future for L4 ADAS, but profitable, fully autonomous vehicles at scale are a long way off and we won’t necessarily have to create that technology ourselves.”

In fact, the contrast between Mobileye’s IPO and Ford’s winding down of Argo AI is not necessarily a debate over the future of AVs as it is about who will do the work, according to some industry observers.

“This is a typical ‘do it myself’ for Ford, versus ‘work across the entire ecosystem’ for Mobileye,” remarked Jack Gold, veteran industry analyst at J. Gold Associates. “It’s not always easy to have an advanced R&D skunk works inside a megalithic company like Ford…Mobileye, on the other hand, has the ability to focus on its direction without a lot of that push/pull influence. Indeed, because it works supplying many companies, it has the ability to harness a lot of good ideas from various firms…

“Ultimately, I think Ford just realized they are not going to get this great advance to L4 ahead of all others in the industry and chose to go to a lower cost, and lower risk route by ultimately going to an outside partner and potentially a faster get-to-market capability as well.”

Almost nobody in the know thinks full autonomous vehicles at L5 will emerge before five years, including Gold. “I’m still on the longer-term bandwagon,” he said. Robot delivery vehicles that operate with a geo-fenced zone and mostly along prescribed routes could come sooner “but the mass market consumer level vehicles still have a lot of technology to invent and prove before they’re really safe and regulations will also be an issue to overcome.”

As a proof point, Gold mentioned how Tesla’s problems with its Autopilot technology seem to have come to head.  “Just look at how much is wrong with simpler L2/L3 technology now,” he said.

As if the Mobileye and Ford news on Wednesday were not enough for self-driving enthusiasts, a report surfaced Thursday that Tesla is facing a US criminal probe over self-driving claims that its electric vehicles can drive themselves, according to three people who spoke to Reuters. Federal safety officials have been examining Tesla accidents for years.

Of course, Tesla has stated many times that its Autopilot, Enhanced Autopilot and Full Self-Driving Capability “are intended for use with a fully attentive driver who has their hands on the wheel.” Current features “do not make the vehicle autonomous,” Tesla states online.

What emerges this week, if not years ago, is that self-driving technology is complex and not just because of what the engineers do, but also what governments, carmakers and vehicle owners do—or don’t do. 

RELATED:Ford winds down Argo AI, drops L4 self-driving capex amid $827M net loss 

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