Beyond the Outrage: The Recent Uber and Tesla Crashes and the Truth About Autonomous Cars


“So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

President Franklin D. Roosevelt

Unless you had been living under a rock, you would know about the latest outrage in the social media. Autonomous vehicles or driverless cars were the coolest thing ever, until they weren’t. Elon Musk was the smartest man ever, until he wasn’t.

Indeed, just as everyone thought that we were headed for a future with driverless cars, trucks, and what not, the recent crashes of autonomous vehicles, first by Uber and a more recent one by Tesla, have put a question mark on all self-driving car projects.

Suddenly, no one wants to touch self-driven cars even with a barge pole! We live in the Age of the Outrage, so this was only to be expected. Trends are created, only to be discarded. Heroes are made, only to be shamed.

For proponents of self-driven cars, it’s time to buckle up, because the outrage will only get worse, and address the issues raised calmly, with facts and reason.

The Ides of March

When the history of self-driven cars is written sometime in the future, March 2018 will be remembered as one of the worst months ever. It all started when a Volvo XC90 struck a 49-year old bicyclist by the name of Elaine Herzberg in Arizona on March 18.

Herzberg was badly hurt from the crash. She was immediately taken to a hospital, where she passed away, unable to recover from her injuries, according to a statement from the Tempe police.

Now, there are dozens of deaths due to road accidents in America every day. But this incident made headlines in newspapers all over the world because it the Volvo XC90 was no ordinary car.

It was a self-driven car fitted with a highly sophisticated collision-avoidance technology by Uber. Uber was forced to suspend the testing of similar vehicles in Toronto, Pittsburg and other cities in North America.

Toyota decided to stop the testing of driverless cars in response, and Audi has delayed the launch of the A8, considered to be the most advanced self-driven car of its kind.

If that wasn’t bad enough, there was another fatal crash involving a self-driven car on March 23. Tesla revealed that a software engineer from California, Wei Huang, 38, crashed his Model X when it was on an Autopilot and was killed instantly.

The hue and cry the incident raised was almost instantaneous and put into question Tesla’s famed semi-autonomous driving system. Elon Musk, who was hailed as the new Steve Jobs when he launched a car into space, was under attack!

Mike Ramsey, a Gartner analyst and an expert on self-driving technologies said, “At the very least, I think there will have to be fundamental changes to Autopilot. The system as it is now tricks you into thinking it has more capability than it does. It’s not an autonomous system. It’s not a hands-free system. But that’s how people are using it, and it works fine, until it suddenly doesn’t.

Looking Beyond the Outrage

Was the autonomous system really at fault for the crashes? In the case of Herzberg, the video footage suggests that the Uber operator had taken his eyes off the road just before the crash. We have to wait for the official verdict on that.

But the fact is 1.3 million people die in road crashes across the world each year, that’s an average of 3,287 deaths a day. Many more are injured or disabled.

In the United States, 37,000 people die in road accidents each year. There is one automotive fatality every 86 million miles in the United States across all vehicles.

For self-driven cars, the fatality rates are much lower. For Tesla cars on Autopilot, there is only one fatality every 320 million miles. That means you’re 3.7 times less likely to be involved in an accident if you are driving a Tesla car on an autopilot, compared to driving a car yourself.

Over 90 percent of car crashes in the America are because of some form of driver error. Autonomous cars eliminate the driver error. After all, cars on autopilot don’t get drunk, stressed or talk on the mobile while driving.

Waymo, Google’s self-driving car project, has been a highly successful one and one that is very safe. Google cars have self-driven more than 5 million miles and have had only about 18 minor traffic accidents.

So Are Autonomous Cars Dangerous?

No, the technology is not yet mature, and it is by no means perfect, but autonomous vehicles are by no means dangerous. According to Google, almost all accidents involving its self-driven test vehicles were because of the fault of other drivers.

We are not completely there yet, but we need to get there slowly and it is going to take many steps and mishaps to do that. These cars can get better and it is only a matter of time before they are able to sense and navigate the traffic more accurately.

After all, transitioning from horse buggies to cars took decades and so will this. Think about it: passengers in a plane driven in autopilot mode are not worried as they know that there is a pilot who is there to take over and so the transition for these vehicles will also happen.

Driverless cars are going to be of a great help to older adults and the disabled – people with impaired vision, slow reaction time and poor memory.

To stop the path to progress which could ultimately prevent millions of accidental deaths, help the elderly, disabled with mobility would certainly not be appropriate. Let’s look beyond the outrage and focus on what is truly important.

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Uber, well-known for its aggressive marketing worldwide, has recently retreated from their global vision after battling with local competitors:

  • In China: Uber sold its holdings to competitor Didi Chuxing after a long marketing battle with them; and
  • In Russia: Uber scaled back operations and holds a minority stake in a new partnership with Yandex, Russia’s answer to Google.

This trend suggests Uber is being pushed out of emerging economies such as China and Russia due to a number of factors:

  • Lack of cultural insight and local expertise
  • Inability to infiltrate pre-existing competitors
  • Governments hostile to U.S. business; and
  • Consumer preference for ‘home grown’ companies.

Uber has also been aggressively marketing in India, stating that “India is a global priority market [for us] and our second-largest after the U.S. in terms of [total] trips.” The way that Uber operates in India is a bit different than how it operates in the U.S.—i.e., transactions can be cash-based, cars are typically owned by a transportation contractor and drivers work full-time.

Will Uber stay competitive with its India competitor Ola? Uber has been slow to assimilate within India’s transport industry and unable to penetrate key cities as quickly. Ola’s auto-rickshaw service is a trusted brand within the market due to its availabilty and reliability.

In India recently both Ola and Uber reduced incentives for drivers. The result was many drivers going on strike. Going forward a viable option may be for Ola to purchase Uber’s local market share enabling reduced operating cost and an increased price point for the combined entity.


Uber in India is fundamentally different from Uber in the West

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U.S.-India trade has grown to $115billion. The U.S. is India’s top export partner while India remains the America’s 9th largest trading partner. Growth in exports, imports, and Foreign Direct Investment remains steady but is dependent on defense, Tech, commodities, and garment sectors. A number of adjustments are imminent, particularly in Tech, due to technological and political headwinds.

Agriculture technology (agtech) is a high impact growth segment of modern technology. In the midst of India’s Decade of Innovation, it is critical to focus on the opportunities in agtech. By doing so the economic interests of nationalist leaders with slogans like “Make in India” and “America First” can be realized through job creation in both nations.

India requires expertise in finding more efficient methods for food storage, processing and packaging, distribution, yield per farm and other advancements that the U.S., with its technological prowess, can provide through:

  • Big Data
  • AI/Machine learning
  • Drones; and
  • Robotics

The growing demand for natural/organic food lifestyles has led to alternatives to meats, milk, eggs, and other animal-based food products. Retailers such as Whole Foods, Trader Joes, Harris Teeter, Aldi, and Wegmans reflect this growth. India can leverage its historic use of plants and herbs for food to help lead the health food trend while expanding trade within America’s food and nutraceutical market.

India’s investors should be encouraging its start-up sector to expand in the nutraceutical-health-food sector, using its proprietary advantage, versus American commodity businesses–e.g. Ola for Uber, Flipkart for Amazon, Paytm for PayPal, etc. How about an Indian-based Beyond Meat, Blue Apron or Honest Tea, all unicorns with billion dollar valuations?

By focusing on its strengths and creating intellectual property around trending consumer demand for agtech, healthy food and nutraceuticals, Indian companies will experience huge growth opportunities.

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PM Modi is arriving in Washington, D.C. on June 25 for his first face-to-face meeting with President Trump. There is some concern over how this meeting will go given the fact that Trump singled out India and China’s environmental practices as one of the reasons for exiting the Paris Climate Change Accord.He also has had his ups and downs with foreign leaders.

My sense is that Modi and Trump will get along fine. Modi built a strong relationship with President Obama despite the administration banning him from visiting the U.S. when he was Chief Minister of Gujarat. Modi is a pragmatist and decided to move forward versus holding a grudge. Expectations are that he will apply the same pragmatism during his upcoming visit.

Following are my top five suggestions for PM Modi as he embarks on fostering a good relationship with President Trump:

  1. Talk about defense contracts: India is a top buyer of U.S. defense equipment so engage the President on past and future deals. Recall how the arms deal with Saudi Arabia was considered a big win.
  2. Offer assistance to reduce prescription drug costs in the U.S.: India is a low cost provider of generic medicine to the U.S. This puts India in a good spot to encourage more deals that reduce cost given Trump’s focus on healthcare policy.
  3. Point out that Indian companies have contributed to jobs in U.S.: Discuss how Infosys and other companies have recently created 10,000 jobs here. Remember it’s all about jobs, jobs and more jobs!
  4. Do not bring up H1b: President Trump was elected on the premise of offering Americans available jobs before those on a visa. Domestic politics usually takes precedent over geopolitical considerations.
  5. Do not bring up the Climate Change Agreement: Trump is not going to change his mind about exiting the Paris Climate Accord anyway. It’s a done deal and a promise he made during the campaign.

Modi’s visit is supposed to be low key but can be leveraged nicely as he’ll see President Trump again soon at the G20 Summit. Best wishes for a good dialogue!

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