Why Google Cars Beat Tesla + Old Mfgs Still Matter

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 6/12/2016 09:31:00 AM
Why tomorrow's king of the (virtual) road may be Google, not Tesla.
There's a wide-ranging interview in Vox of automobile commentator Edward Niedermayer on that ever-popular topic, the future of the automobile. In contrast to many of today's journalists, Niedermayer is skeptical of Tesla. Especially with its myriad of quality control issues born of, well, not really having the experience of being a full-fledged car company, he views its business model as fundamentally flawed. (Also see Consumer Reports' scathing reappraisal.) As Tesla moves down the price range, these shortcomings may become more evident as those relying on these vehicles for everyday transportation will be less forgiving of their cars' foibles:
Cars have become so reliable and so easy to use that we think about them less than we ever have in the 100-plus-year history of the automobile. This is one reason we don't appreciate this depth of complexity. Not only are cars different from software in very fundamental ways, they're much more complicated than anything else consumers buy.

Cars use a wide variety of materials, built into components and subassemblies by massive global supply chains. Car companies have to choose and develop the right materials and components, maintain their uniformity and integrity throughout that supply chain, and ensure that they operate reliably in almost every imaginable condition on Earth.

A great example is the problem of mold growing from inside the Model S's roof, particularly in Norwegian cars. Because its large panoramic sunroof is difficult to manufacture and install to a precise specification, Model S roofs often leak. A lot of those leaks are so small that customers might not notice. But because Tesla used an organic-fiber pad at the edge of the sunroof, aggressive molds invade at alarming rates in certain climates. This kind of complex, cascading defect is why automakers value their accumulated institutional knowledge and spend years testing vehicles.
Google, on the other hand, Niedermayet is more sanguine about. Despite ostensibly coming from the same "Silicon Valley" culture, Google has the foresight to enlist actual car guys instead of assuming they know better, and this supposedly makes all the difference:
Google's strategy is the counterfactual that makes me especially nervous about Tesla. Google's core technology is the autonomous drive capability, and I think they have to be closely watching Tesla and the struggles they've had. So Google has hired some very high-profile people from the car business. They have former Ford CEO Alan Mulally on their board. Lawrence Burns, the former research and development boss for General Motors, is a consultant for them. The head of their autonomous car program is John Krafcik, one of the auto industry's most respected veterans.

It's a dream team of real tier-one automaker experience. With their accumulated knowledge — and looking at Tesla's struggles — they know that building their own car is a fool's mission. They also recognize that Silicon Valley culture is fundamentally different from manufacturing culture...

What fundamentally sets Google apart is that these auto people know how hard building cars is. It is not only an intellectual challenge, it's a discipline challenge. Managing that level of complexity requires a certain amount of accumulated knowledge; building that from scratch is incredibly difficult.
And how about the traditional automakers? In a world of Tesla and Google autonomous vehicles, are these stodgy types inevitably doomed? Actually, a lot of their conservatism stems from previous experiences with product liability issues which have the potential to hinder the growth of the tech companies' vehicle sales. By contrast, the old timers have given much thought to these sorts of issues already:
But the legal liability risks are very high. It's very easy for people to make mistakes and blame the car for their mistakes. So in some ways that's an incentive to go full autonomy. But even for a company like Toyota with $80 billion in the bank, there could be liability issues that could challenge the fate of the company. So they are incredibly conservative about deployment, and they will not deploy anything unless it works in 99.9 percent of use cases. That contrasts with what Tesla is doing, a public beta test. They say they are. They admit it...

I personally tend to like Toyota's approach, because they accept and own the conservative nature of the business. So they don't fool themselves that they're going to do this leapfrog approach.
It's food for thought--especially if you're contemplating a Tesla or Google car in the future.