Navigant Research Blog

Most Developed Automated Vehicle Tech Doesn’t Equate to a Best Solution Today

— June 21, 2018

An interesting Twitter thread sprung up recently discussing the merits of Tesla’s AutoPilot partially automated driving system relative to competitors. This came in the wake of a preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board that was examining a March 2018 crash that killed an Apple engineer in a Tesla Model X. One of the commenters raised the concept of which automated driving systems are most developed, citing how far back Tesla ranked in Navigant Research’s Automated Driving Leaderboard report.

How to Interpret Leaderboard Rankings

While it is true that Tesla had the lowest score in this year’s ranking, it’s important to understand both what is being ranked and how most developed may relate to best developed for automated driving.

This Navigant Research Leaderboard is intended to provide a snapshot of where analysts believe companies rank in their ability to successfully commercialize automated driving technology. To do that, the Leaderboard goes well beyond just the core automation technology, with individual subscores assigned for 10 different criteria including vision, go-to market strategies, partnerships, manufacturing capability, product quality, and financial strength. While Tesla has always ranked high on vision, it often lags in many other areas, leading to its low overall score.

Scoring for Vision

The vision score is based in part on where a company sees its business going in the coming decade as well as what it hopes to achieve. In Tesla’s case, its score was boosted by its belief that automated driving technology should be deployed as far and wide as possible as soon as possible.

That is a fantastic idea. In an ideal world, it would save many of the tens of thousands of lives lost annually in American traffic accidents and the more than one million lost globally. Unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal world. Putting insufficiently developed technology in the hands of untrained consumers on public roads can be a recipe for disaster.

The Gap between Most and Best

AutoPilot may indeed be the most developed system on the market today in terms of the manufacturer’s willingness to stretch its capabilities and extract all it can from the available sensor suite. That does not necessarily make it the best developed system in terms of what should be in production based on safety requirements and consumers’ current abilities and understanding of the technology.

Humans Like Consistency

Early in my engineering career, working on anti-lock braking systems, I learned the value of ensuring that the technology performed with as much consistency and predictability as possible. For all our flaws, humans are remarkably adaptable if we understand the conditions. Most people tend to drive the same vehicle every day for years. Even if a vehicle has limitations or quirks, as long as they are consistent, drivers will adjust how they use the vehicle. If a vehicle has a longer stopping distance, drivers will brake sooner. If the steering response is slower, a larger angle will be used.

The problem comes when the system responds differently every time you use it, as many voice control systems have done. That’s when people stop using it or get caught unawares when they do. That likely contributed to Walter Huang ignoring warnings to hold the steering wheel in his Tesla. There are other systems on the market, that while not as capable as they could be in certain conditions, are indeed better developed for the real world.

Acknowledging Room for Improvement

As we move to higher levels of automated driving in the next several years, we need to encourage manufacturers to acknowledge what their products can’t do yet, while working to make available functions the best they can be.


Technology Misuse Endangering Automated Driving

— April 24, 2018

If we’ve learned anything from the era of reality television and user-generated online video, it’s that a surprising number of people will risk great harm by misusing themselves or technology to get some online attention. Whether it’s blowing up a microwave, eating laundry detergent pods, or misusing driver assist features on a car, too many are willing to abandon common sense in search of the dopamine hit that comes with seeing the number of views ratchet higher. I shake my head in bewilderment when I hear of someone swallowing a detergent pod, but at least they are not putting others in harm’s way.

Vehicle Travel Should Be Serious

More concerning is seeing videos of people using today’s vehicle partial automation systems, like Tesla AutoPilot, beyond the scope of its capabilities or trying to figure out how to trick it into functioning as a more highly automated system. I have no issues with hardware hacking of stationary devices, or vehicle systems not related to driving. Repurposing hardware you have purchased to provide added functionality can be fun, educational, and allows you to extract more value from it.

But modifying or tricking a vehicle’s guidance system puts innocent bystanders at risk, with potentially disastrous consequences. People who override driver assistance systems or pay little attention to the vehicle’s operation could negatively affect the adoption of automated vehicles.

Consumers Shouldn’t Overestimate Vehicle Autopilot

Tesla AutoPilot and similar systems from General Motors, Volvo, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, and others are not automated driving systems. Except for GM’s SuperCruise, none of these systems are reliably able to hold a vehicle in lane to the degree of hands-off functionality. All of the driving systems, including GM’s, require the driver to remain engaged with eyes on the road and ready to take over.

Overconfident Users Are Misusing Existing Automated Capabilities

While Tesla CEO Elon Musk often talks about software updates that will give AutoPilot full self-driving capability, that day has not arrived and may never be here with the current generation of hardware. Despite the well-known flaws and limitations of AutoPilot, Tesla owners continue to ignore warnings from the system and the company, using the system in ways or in places where it should be disabled. One owner that has posted dozens of videos to YouTube recently tried to demonstrate that stuffing oranges between the steering wheel rim and spokes could fool the system into thinking the driver’s hands were on the wheel. Had this been done on a closed track, it might have been an interesting stunt. On a public road, with other vehicles around, this was downright reckless.

An Apple engineer recently died when his Tesla was on AutoPilot mode and ran into a highway barrier in California. While the system clearly failed to hold the vehicle in the lane, this driver had previously complained about the car exhibiting the same bad behavior to Tesla service. Since the accident, several other Tesla owners have replicated the situation while recording video with a hand-held phone, risking further injuries.

A pedestrian was killed by an Uber autonomous test vehicle in another instance of a driver not paying attention as instructed and pushing the technology beyond its limits. Automakers need to continue clarifying the vast differences between the driver assist technologies of today and the driver not needed technologies of tomorrow.

Holding out Hope for Progress

A number of studies have already shown that a majority of people don’t trust automated driving systems. Automation has the potential to provide enormous societal benefits by saving lives and damage to property. However, if the actions of those looking for views erode public trust in the technology even as it improves, those benefits may remain off in the horizon.


Don’t Get Too Fired Up Over Tesla Mishaps

— November 14, 2013

Despite being named 2012 Car of the Year by Automobile Magazine and Yahoo! Autos, and chosen as one of Time magazine’s best inventions of 2012, recent media headlines in 2013 haven’t been quite as kind to Tesla Motors’ Model S.  Over the past two months, three fires in Tesla’s vehicles have gained widespread attention.  The fires have significantly contributed to the 20% slide in Tesla’s stock price this month, although the stock is still up more than 300% since the beginning of 2013.

Pushing aside the media hysteria, let’s take a look at the facts.  On average, 17 automobile fires are reported every hour in the United States (194,000 on average every year between 2008 and 2010), killing an average of four people every week.  Of particular importance, mechanical or electrical failures or malfunctions were reported in roughly two-thirds of automobile fires.  As for the Tesla fires, all three involved car crashes; the fires did not begin spontaneously as the result of electrical failures or malfunctions, and in all three incidents the driver walked away without injury.

Technology Comparison

For a deeper comparison of electric and internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles, it’s useful to analyze the safety of the vehicles more generally.  This can be achieved through analyzing vehicle fires and deaths per billion miles driven.  EVs are approaching 1 billion miles driven.  The Chevrolet Volt (300 million), Nissan LEAF (323 million), and Tesla Model S (100 million) represent the majority of these electric miles driven.

According to the U.S. Federal Highway Administration, roughly 90 highway vehicle fires and 0.15 highway vehicle fire deaths occur in ICE vehicles per billion miles driven.  Conversely, EVs have had a total of four reported fires and zero fatalities for the first near one billion electric miles driven.  Thus, ICE vehicles are 22.5 times more likely to catch on fire than EVs.  It’s also important to keep in mind that EVs are the first models of their kind, essentially experimental vehicles, and have still been able to far surpass the safety record of ICE automobiles.


So why is there so much attention and scrutiny on Tesla? Considering the frequency of car fires, perhaps the fact that Tesla went so long without having any is the main reason for the Model S making headlines.  Consumers may also hold EVs to a higher safety standard than traditional vehicles, due to the absence of gasoline in EVs.  However, not all are expressing distrust or skepticism around the Tesla fires.  Panasonic, manufacturer of battery cells for the Tesla Model S, has recently come to the aid of the automaker, and the company’s chief financial officer expressed confidence in Tesla and the performance of its batteries.  Panasonic ranked as the fourth best overall lithium ion battery manufacturer in the world in Navigant Research’s Leaderboard Report: Lithium Ion Batteries for Electric Vehicles.

Regardless of the recent media concern over EV safety, one issue remains clear : if your car does go up in flames, having an electric battery under the hood is much safer than a tank of gas, any day of the week.


What’s to Be Learned from ECOtality

— September 26, 2013

In a move that had been expected since the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) suspended funding of the ECOtality-administered EV Project in mid-August, ECOtality filed for bankruptcy early last week.  The company’s collapse will serve as yet another talking point that media outlets will use to question the wisdom of federal government support for clean and renewable energy technologies.  While that debate is important, there is much to be learned from the wealth of information that ECOtality provided through its role in the EV Project to the national and global electric vehicle supply equipment (EVSE) industry.  Primary among these lessons is the currently weak business case for Level 2 alternating current (AC) public charging, an area in which ECOtality was a major player.

ECOtality made and installed charging units for residential and commercial (publicly available, workplace, fleet) applications.  Other companies in the same business have had success by partnering with plug-in electric vehicle (PEV) manufacturers to bundle EVSE costs with PEV purchases.  The first failing of ECOtality was its inability to gain a partnership with a PEV maker in the above manner, thus becoming dependent on the EV Project.

Additionally, ECOtality developed and managed the Blink Network, made up of more than 4,000 charging stations, including 87 direct current (DC) fast charging stations, most of which were in place because of the EV Project.  While other companies are also invested in this space – AeroVironment, NRG, Tesla, ChargePoint, etc. – it is currently not considered a significant revenue-generating enterprise (Tesla gives it away for free!).

As the 2Q 2013 report from the EV Project indicates, publicly accessible AC charge points were connected to a vehicle on an average of 4% of the time they were available.  During the course of the 91-day quarter, this amounted to 20 charging events per Level 2 EVSE, with the average connection being 4.5 hours.  At the Blink membership rate of $1 per hour, this equates to roughly $361 of annual revenue per installed unit.  Assuming an even split of charge events occurring at Blink member rates and guest rates ($2 per hour) and subtracting the cost of electricity taken at the average commercial electricity rate per the United States in July ($0.108 per kWh), any Blink Network site host could expect $430 per unit annually.  That is, of course, without network management fees, maintenance costs, and any profit-sharing agreement with the EVSE manufacturer.

Total installation costs of public Level 2 installations vary widely, as they depend on a number of variables.  Estimates fall between $3,000 and $11,000.  With those costs, it takes 7 to 25 years to pay back the investment.  At the lowest estimated installation cost, chargers need to be used more than twice as often to net a return on investment in 3 years.  Therefore, outside of government programs that pay for the station’s installation, there is not a strong case for property owners to install publicly accessible Level 2 AC EVSE based on direct revenue – especially not with the low number of PEVs on the road in 2013.  Instead, property owners must justify EVSE installations through the benefits of attracting more business to their locations and differentiating from competitors to attract EV drivers.  Additional value-adds are emerging in the form of utilizing the installed EVSE space for advertising.

EVSE manufacturers survive by selling their EVSE to service providers, property owners, and/or PEV drivers.  The commercial market is growing, but in most cases, publicly accessible Level 2 stations are used too rarely to make them financially viable for most property owners.  Installations at workplaces and for fleets make more sense, as the EV Project data shows these stations are used more than twice as often as publicly accessible stations.  While this market is growing, it is still a small market, and ECOtality was just one of many players.  ECOtality’s troubles may be a harbinger of things to come in the larger EVSE industry as it continues to mature.  However, PEV sales are just starting to take off and increasing densities of EVs per public charge point may significantly improve the business case for publicly accessible AC charging infrastructure.

Plug in Electric Vehicle Sales, World Markets: 2013-2020

Untitled (Source: Navigant Research)


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