Tip from a self-driving car engineer: don’t choose black

A friend is shopping for a new car. He happens to have been working for the past five years on various Silicon Valley self-driving car efforts. What’s he looking at for a new car for himself? A C8 Corvette! (Why not the product of the finest minds of Silicon Valley? “Can any expensive car have a worse interior than Tesla? Seems impossible. They shaved every possible penny there.”)

What color? “Anything but black,” he replied. “The Zeus Bronze Metallic also might be too close to black.” What’s wrong with black? “It will be invisible to Lidar. The cameras might see it during the daytime, but it will be dangerous to drive at night because self-driving cars won’t see it.”

Readers: What do you think of the C8 in Zeus Bronze?

Compare to the Red Mist Metallic, which is the most popular color:

Some additional thoughts from our deeply embedded source…

When can we expect the promised age of self-driving cars?

Hard to answer as depends on legislation and business. Let’s go backwards and try to guess. What is the long-term future? Is it (a) autonomous cars try to mix into traffic with humans, or (b) human driving is illegal?

To get to (a), are the steps (1) start selling autonomous to fleet operators, (2) start selling autonomous to citizens, (3) stop making new human-driven cars, hence no wheel, and grandfather some human driven cars

For (1) to happen the cars have to get good enough, for (2) to happen the cars have to get cheap enough, for (3) to happen Biden/Harris will need the power to repurpose the roads for the greatest public good/safety (also nice because now the government will know where all of the citizens are going and when)

My guess is that the industry wants (a) for now but the government will want (b), which makes more efficient use of roads, simplifies the software, and also facilitates tracking everyone.

Right now (2021) self-driving car is expensive and dangerous. Reducing expense is possible once more money goes into the ecosystem, but it remains to be seen how safely they operate. Horse/car analogy does not make sense: man-driven flesh vehicle to man-driven ICE vehicle. Self driving is from man-driven vehicle to software-driven.

Why is this challenge so tough for software?

The problem with mixing software-driven and human-driven vehicles is exemplified by “is that guy watching Netflix while driving going to yield to my left turn?” Hard to get that right.

When will a family be able to buy a self-driving car, then, without a steering wheel and mix it up with human-driven contraptions?

Pure guess 25 years

A Tesla 3-owning friend:

Tesla owners think by 2017. Then by 2019. Then by 2020. Now by 2021. They pay $10,000 for “full self driving” software. Tucker Auto was shut down for less of a scam.

An immigrant from Eastern Europe participating in this discussion:

My father had a self-driving car for a decade in the 80s. It was called a company chauffeur. He couldn’t do much in the car because it is still less convenient. If it is a short drive, you won’t accomplish much. Read the news perhaps, or write a few emails. Phone calls you can make now.

The self-driving software engineer saw the biggest competition as coming from Uber and similar human-driven services. As long as low-skill labor in the U.S. remains cheap due to mass immigration, self-driving tech would have to be both inexpensive and nearly perfect to be competitive.

Shifting gears, so to speak, for a moment… what about the fact that cameras are being driven around 24/7 in vehicles that can stream footage up to the cloud? The government can already get footage from doorbell and house-attached cameras (see “Amazon Ring is creating the surveillance complex” by Mark Hurst). Will a police officer in 10 years be able to say “I want to see what was happening at the intersection of 8th and Main at 10:32 pm” and get footage from all of the self-driving cars that happened to be passing that location at the time?

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A $5000 electric car

One of my worst predictions ever was a 2003 forecast that, by 2023, the Chinese would be able to sell a basic car for $3,000 in 2003 dollars (about $4,300 in today’s money, adjusted via the BLS CPI calculator). I further thought that Americans, instead of burying themselves in debt to buy a needlessly fancy car, would get around in these $4,300 cars.

The market has moved in the opposite direction, with cars over $40,000 being average (USA Today).

Perhaps there is hope, though! “Tesla’s Nemesis in China Is a Tiny $5,000 Electric Car From GM” (Bloomberg):

The Hongguang MINI EV, made by SAIC-GM-Wuling Automobile Co., is currently the hottest EV in China, the world’s biggest automobile market. Sales of the compact four-seater beat industry giant Tesla Inc. in August, with consumers wowed by its tiny price tag — the EV retails for between 28,800 yuan ($4,230) and 38,800 yuan — and its ability to run for as many as 170 kilometers (106 miles) on a single charge. Orders exceeded 30,000 units in just 50 days.

“A lot of consumers don’t need anything fancy, a commute is all they ask from a car,” said Yale Zhang, founder of AutoForesight, a Shanghai-based consultancy. “I’m all for a product like the MINI EV.”

Maybe by 2023 this will be improved? It already has a top speed of 62 mph, according to Wikipedia. That’s nearly double my proposed speed limit that will keep Americans safe.

The interior:

The exterior:

The commercial..

With two more years of Chinese-speed innovation, why wouldn’t this be a good car for Americans?

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Camry good; Corolla bad

On a recent Cirrus SR20 trip to Florida and back, I let the FBOs pick rental cars for me. The result was typically a base-model Toyota Camry from Go Rentals (awesome service!), which is a near-great car at $25,000. The worst feature is the infotainment system software, which is slow to boot up and slow to recognize that an iPhone has been plugged in for Apple CarPlay. The CarPlay feature does not work via BlueTooth, so a quick stop becomes cumbersome due to unplugging the phone, plugging the phone back in, acknowledging some legalese, trying to get CarPlay reestablished on the screen, etc. Nit: the engine roars a bit and sounds strained under hard acceleration (not a problem if my 35 mph limit proposal is adopted).

Verdict: A better car than a Tesla for practical driving performance and comfort.

Florida was jammed with visitors. The ramp at Naples had jets packed on the ramp as if they were in a hangar, with every square foot of ramp space used as efficiently as possible (more typical: optimize outdoor parking so that it is possible to start up and drive out without another aircraft having to be moved). At Palm Beach, the ramp looked like someone had robbed a Gulfstream store (a friend: “In Palm Beach, people don’t ask if you have a jet. They ask ‘What color is your Gulfstream?'”). Here’s the kind of inequality that upsets me most and that I hope President Harris will address:

(1960 Beech Debonair (still worth an astonishing $50,000!) and a Gulfstream so new that N332DX couldn’t be found in the FAA database)

As I walked out of the FBO, the transportation choices were Bentley or Rolls-Royce:

Due to a Camry shortage, I was fated, however, to drive a Toyota Corolla ($20,000). This has all of the bad infotainment software of the Camry and none of the over-the-road comfort and quiet. It was so much noisier inside than the Camry that it was tough to believe it had been made by the same company. Maybe it would be okay for around-town driving, but it is definitely not suitable for the highway.

Just for fun… the Trump International Golf Club right next to Palm Beach International:

A classic car museum in Sarasota:

(A whole row of Ferraris that people bought and hardly ever drove.)

And, right next the museum, a store where you could buy the Sultan of Brunei’s armored Mercedes limo, perfect for driving to mostly peaceful protests:

Or a wood-sided station wagon for $170,000:

A classic truck…

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Save lives by limiting cars to 35 mph?

Following up on Why do we care about COVID-19 deaths more than driving-related deaths? (March 26, 2020) … by shutting down for a year we’ve spent way more per life-year in our attempt to reduce coronaplague deaths than I ever could have imagined. If we infer from this how much saving a life-year is worth to us, it would be rational to limit cars and tracks, nearly all of which are electronically controlled, to 35 mph. Consider that most people who die in car accidents had many decades of life expectancy in front of them, unlike the typical 82-year-old victim of COVID-19.

An SUV-driving suburban Bostonite who runs his own law practice (representing workers’ compensation plaintiffs who aren’t typically expert computer users and who therefore prefer to meet in person): “I go to work every day at 80 miles per hour.”

Obviously setting the speed limit to 35 mph and relying on police enforcement wouldn’t work. For one thing, our heroic law enforcement officers don’t want to interact with potential COVID carriers (all who want to be vaccinated have been vaccinated, but many refused the experimental (“investigational”) vaccines and it is unknown whether the vaccines work against variants).

Most states have annual inspection requirements. How about insisting that engine control software be updated in order to get an inspection sticker? The update will prevent the car from exceeding 35 mph. New cars, obviously, can be limited via regulation.

How can Presidents Biden and Harris sell this to the American people? “You were happy to sit at home for a year when we told you it might save lives. You can wait an extra 10 minutes to get to Walmart.”

A potential #resistance household in Key West:

And these two in Miami may need a long spell in the re-education camp:

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Toyota Sienna vs Honda Odyssey

For those who need the style and prestige that only driving a minivan can yield… the Toyota Sienna is all new for 2021 and contains much exciting technology (see Electric AWD implemented by Toyota for the 2021 Sienna minivan).

Our 2018 Honda Odyssey recently needed an oil change. While it was getting worked on, I test-drove a 2021 Honda Odyssey (apparently identical to our 2018 with the exception of the graphics on one switch) and walked across the driveway to the Toyota dealer and test-drove a 2021 Toyota Sienna XLE FWD.

The Sienna seems a little noisier inside at 50 mph. The handling and acceleration are less responsive. Stomping on the gas pedal does not result in anything dramatic happening whereas the Odyssey can be a 1980s-grade sports car if you need it to be. There is a wireless charger in the center of the dashboard in a place that would keep the phone out of everyone’s way. But why is it useful? You have to plug in the phone to get Apple CarPlay to work. At that point the phone is charging from the cable. The iPhone 12 Pro Max kept sliding off the precise spot where it needed to be to charge and the charge indicator would then flash.

One plus: the Sienna has a regular shifter for the transmission, instead of a confusing set of push buttons.

The “kick to open” sliding doors don’t work if you leave the keys in the car as we often do when we’re inside the airport fence, for example. So it ends up being an inconsistent interface (works when you have key in pocket; doesn’t work when keys are in car).

Nit: There are (plastic?) chrome buttons all around the touch screen that look cheap.

The other big problem with the Sienna XLE is that it seems to be far more expensive per month than the comparable Honda EX-L, at least when leased (which I think is the most reasonable way to look at the true cost of a car). The Sienna is a hybrid so it gets much better gas mileage, but it could still never save enough in fuel to overcome the extra lease cost ($150 or more per month).

Here’s the monster grille on the Sienna that I tested:

This would be great for a “form follows function” textbook example. The grille is mostly blocked off so as to reduce drag. There is a small hole in the middle for air to come in and cool the engine.

Our family decision: Change it up by replacing our leased white 2018 Honda Odyssey with a leased white 2021 Honda Odyssey.

Loosely related… what happens when MIT geniuses go shopping for cars? “Electric Cars Are Better for the Planet – and Often Your Budget, Too”:

New data published Thursday shows that despite the higher sticker price, electric cars may actually save drivers money in the long-run.

To reach this conclusion, a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology calculated both the carbon dioxide emissions and full lifetime cost — including purchase price, maintenance and fuel — for nearly every new car model on the market.

My comment:

How can the budget assertions of this article make any sense? A mid-sized Nissan Altima leases for $290/month (spreading the up front payment over 36 months). The Tesla web site shows the lease cost of the Tesla 3 at $525/month. The Tesla’s higher capital cost and high cost of bodywork means that the insurance for the Tesla will be much more expensive than for the conventional gas-powered mid-size car. Even if electricity were free, the Tesla would still be more expensive over the three-year lease. (Here in Massachusetts, the electricity for a Tesla actually costs MORE per mile than the gasoline for an Accord, Altima, Camry, or similar.) Maintenance costs? The conventional car will be under warranty for the entire lease period. It might need a couple of oil changes at $50/each. The Tesla will burn through tires (at least all of my friends’ Teslas have). I wonder if the research was done by people who had never shopped for a car.

Via facts, figures, and research, our best academics have proven that something that costs $525/month is cheaper than something that costs $290/month.

Update: Consumer Reports finally released their test results on the Sienna. Honda did better on the road test (85 vs. 79), “third seat comfort,” “interior fit and finish,” and “trunk/cargo area.” The Toyota was better for predicted reliability and fuel economy. In CR’s scoring system, the Sienna ended up higher overall, but for a lease customer the reliability is irrelevant (since the warranty extends for the full three years of the lease). The superior fuel economy is nice, but, as noted above, saving the planet won’t save you any money because the Sienna lease costs so much more every month.

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Maskachusetts takes aggressive action against climate change…

… starting 14 years from now: “Massachusetts to Ban Sale of New Gas-Powered Cars by 2035” (Car and Driver).

Climate change is an existential crisis, which is why we are going to do nothing about it (other than abandon public transport in favor of private cars) until 2035.

I am waiting for our legislature to ban the sale of Wright Flyers.

How much will this help to heal Planet Earth? At least for now, a battery-electric vehicle actually emits more greenhouse gas over a 10-year life than a plug-in hybrid:

Note further that driving a small conventional gas-powered car would actually result in less emission of CO2 than driving a mid-sized electric car. Also note that the difference in lifetime CO2 emission between a virtuous Tesla and an evil non-hybrid Honda Accord is minimal. If you hate emitting CO2, #StayHomeSaveLives and/or ride a bike.


  • from the October 2020 debate between Virtue and Evil: Biden: Climate change, climate warming, global warming is an existential threat to humanity. We have a moral obligation to deal with it. And we’re told by all the leading scientists in the world that we don’t have much time. We’re going to pass the point of no return within the next eight to 10 years. (My comment on the foregoing: “Humanity is facing an existential threat? Why is Biden worried about Covid-19, which kills as many people as a few bad flu seasons even when a country mostly just gives the finger to the virus? Why not take the $trillions we’re still spending on Covid-19 and instead spend it on preventing Earth from turning into Venus?”)
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Consumer Reports and the Tesla Y

The dispassionate folks at Consumer Reports are not impressed with the Tesla Y. Their recently released road test rates the vehicle a pathetic 50 out of 100 (SUVS that cost half as much rate 89 (Subaru Forester), 83 (Mazda CX-5 ), 82 (Honda CR-V), and 81 (Kia Sportage)).

They noticed the same things that we noticed about the Tesla X, i.e., compared to a conventional Honda or Toyota, it is noisy inside and bumpy:

Bumps and ruts punch through noticeably into the Model Y’s cabin, to the point that passengers will be keenly aware of nearly every road imperfection. The stiff suspension delivers short, quick ride motions over any bumps, which makes the car feel nervous. The Model Y isn’t nearly as comfortable as the Toyota RAV4 Prime (plug-in hybrid) SUV let alone the all-electric Audi E-Tron.

The Model Y has a nearly silent powertrain, but the interior ambience is spoiled by a considerable amount of impact boom when the tires encounter bumps. Some wind noise infiltrates at highway speeds, and we could hear a rattle at times emanating from the rear of the vehicle. The Model Y is quieter than the Model 3 sedan, but it certainly doesn’t set any new standards for SUVs, whether of EV or gas variety.

Predicted reliability is 1/5. Can the $61,000 car drive itself to the repair shop?

We purchased the Full Self-Driving Capability option, which adds several advanced features including Smart Summon, Navigate on Autopilot, and Traffic Light and Stop Sign Control. We found most of the features perform inconsistently and aren’t actually all that helpful in many situations.

How about the user interface that comes from sticking a $299 touch screen monitor in the middle of the dashboard?

While Tesla’s climate system did a decent job of keeping everyone comfortable, no one liked the controls, since all of the adjustments must be done via the center infotainment screen, even including changing the direction of the air vents. Drivers have to spend too much time with their eyes off the road to make simple adjustments on the screen, such as fiddling with tiny arrows to make temperature changes. Since the screen doesn’t offer any haptic feedback, it’s tough to know if you’re actually making a change to the controls.

You can’t worship simultaneously at the altars of Apple and Tesla:

Neither Android Auto nor Apple CarPlay are compatible with the Tesla infotainment system. We found the voice commands to have a significant lag when initiating phone calls. Incoming phone calls appear on the lower left part of the infotainment screen, and you have to reach down there and touch the screen to accept the call. Most cars give drivers the ability to interact with phone functions through the steering wheel.

One of our favorite safety features on the beloved 2018 Honda Odyssey is blind spot warning. This is implemented differently on the Tesla:

Blind spot warning — The Model Y does not have a traditional blind spot warning system with icons that are visible in the side mirrors. Instead, it displays an image of the car in the center screen and shows images of surrounding vehicles. Red lines are displayed when a vehicle or object is in close proximity. An audible warning can be activated through the settings menu. In our experience, this is an inadequate warning system as drivers naturally check the mirror for a blind spot warning, not a center screen.

As with the stock, owners love the car! 89 percent say that they would buy it again. Engineers at Honda, Toyota, Ford, et al. must be going nuts! The Tesla Y flouts every rule in the book of car engineering and buyers don’t care!


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Volvo touch screen controls: crazier than Sweden’s coronavirus policies?

We recently rented a 2021 Volvo S60 from Enterprise. Many of the controls have migrated to a central touch screen and there are just a handful of buttons in the center plus some labeled-only-with-icon buttons on the steering wheel. Neither I nor Senior Management could figure out how to do the basics, e.g., keep Google Maps from Apple CarPlay on the screen, sync the left/right temperatures, hang up a phone call from a steering wheel button (from another one of which a phone call had been initiated).

The speedometer cluster seems to be a dot-matrix display, which is nice in theory, but the gauges are not presented as clearly as in a more primitive implementation.

Compared to the typical country, Sweden has taken a different path when confronted with coronavirus. Kids have been in school continuously, for example, and adults at work. The country’s first real restriction, limiting “public events” to 8 people, came a year after the world’s first Covid-19 case (November 17, 2019). (Note that Swedes remain free to assemble privately, e.g., a Swedish family could host a party for 20 friends and not be subject to prosecution (nor be scolded if the guests were unmasked). And the restrictions don’t apply to schools or workplaces.)

(Our Church of Shutdown media, of course, characterizes Sweden as a “failure”, operating from the assumption that the only worthwhile human goal is avoiding coronavirus infection. That said, Sweden doesn’t make the first page of countries ranked by Covid-19 death rate.)

I drive at least 30 different cars per year (rental cars, FBO crew cars borrowed at airports, friend’s cars, etc.). None of them have been as confusing as this 2021 Volvo S60. Who wants to defend Swedish idiosyncrasy in dashboard design?

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Electric AWD implemented by Toyota for the 2021 Sienna minivan

Back in 2019 I wondered Why aren’t AWD cars half electric?

The latest 2021 Toyota Sienna, redesigned with a grille large enough for a 400 HP diesel Freightliner truck, works this way (as does the Toyota RAV4, as a reader comment pointed out on that 2019 posting). From the press release:

Sienna uses a new kind of AWD called Electronic on-demand AWD. Instead of a heavy AWD transfer case and space-robbing driveshaft to the rear wheels, this AWD system uses a separate independent electric motor to power the rear wheels the instant additional traction is needed and at all vehicle speeds.

One bizarre feature of this brand-new-for-2021 minivan is that it has a older generation of the driver assistance technology: Toyota Safety Sense 2.0. The 2021 Toyota Camry, for example, offers “Safety Sense 2.5+” (why not just “2.5”? Is this like “LGBTQIA” where it isn’t complete without the plus sign?) and can perhaps drive itself in a stop-and-go highway situation.

Some excerpts from Consumer Reports:

From our brief time with this preproduction Sienna, it feels as if the van is no longer playing second fiddle to the polished Honda Odyssey. The van is responsive to steering inputs and happy to hustle along winding roads.

Yes, the Sienna is quiet and composed at low speeds when running on electric-only power. But when the Sienna transitions from electric power to the gas engine as a result of added throttle inputs, the engine comes on with a roar. The four-cylinder engine is loud when the driver tries to hurry the Sienna along, particularly on the highway. Sienna owners who are used to the V6 engine’s refinement may find this experience a bit of a letdown.

From Car and Driver:

The all-new Sienna is much improved and heavily refined over the old model, but stops short of leading the minivan class.

From CNET:

One of the best arguments in favor of this Toyota is fuel economy. After a good ol’ thrashing on a wide variety of roads, I averaged just shy of 35 miles per gallon in my Platinum-trim, all-wheel-drive tester. That’s practically economy-car efficiency, plus it’s right in line with this Toyota’s window sticker. According to the EPA, it should return 35 mpg city, 36 mpg highway and 35 mpg combined. Front-drive models are rated at 36 mpg across the board, and all-wheel drive is available across the lineup.


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A 2016 Volkswagen e-Golf interfaces with the American used car market

A friend spent $10,000 on a 2016 Volkswagen e-Golf via Carvana, a fixed-price car delivery service. The vehicle arrived in beautiful cosmetic condition, but with a Nissan-brand charger that did not work, failing even to illuminate a green LED when plugged in, much less charge the Volkswagen. A week of hassle ensued in which the proud new owner was shunted from an auto parts store to a Volkswagen dealer. Eventually she got a Volkswagen-brand charger, which was a $700 part (enough for a year of minivan driving in the Age of Coronapanic and with gas at $2/gallon).

The new charger worked, but the car’s computer systems weren’t consistent. She would set off on a short journey with the computer showing a range of 80 miles and then watch the range forecast jump to 3 miles while the car stopped itself on the highway. 2.5 hours later, AAA towed the car away.

Eventually she decided to trade the car back for a 2010 Mini, powered, of course, by dinosaur blood.

I’m wondering if early attempts at electric cars will soon be clogging our junkyards. If her experience is typical, the systems seem to be at a Windows 98 level of reliability.

Speaking of cars, here’s a Mercedes ad from the a recent New York Times web page:

This leads to a “Pride month” web page on mbusa.com:

A Proud Owner Speaks

“This Pride month is unlike any other before it. We find ourselves in the middle of a global health pandemic, while so many of us have united in fighting to address and finally put an end to systemic racism and discrimination. As a proud Black and gay man, I take this time to pause and hold space for the Black community because we are hurting and we are demanding lasting change. Mercedes-Benz has stood with the Black and LGBTQ+ communities and has vowed to continue to be with us going forward.

As unique as this time is, it does truly echo and honors the legacy of bravery of the Civil Rights Movement and the historic Stonewall protests, which were led by pioneering Black transgender activists like Marsha P. Johnson. These movements, past and present, intersect at the common point of pushing towards equality for all.

(When you identify as LGBTQIA+, it is acceptable to modify “unique”?)

If the Wikipedia List of LGBT awareness periods is to be believed, Pride month is June, not October (home to Asexual Awareness Week, International Lesbian Day, International Pronouns Day, Intersex Awareness Day, LGBT History Month, Spirit Day, and National Coming Out Day).

We’re informed by the NYT that Americans who identify as LGBTQIA+ suffer employment and other discrimination that reduces their income and wealth. If so, how did they come to have $80,000 to spend on a Mercedes that performs the same function as a $25,000 Toyota or Honda?

Also potentially interesting: the Mercedes web site for German consumers does not contain any content regarding the company’s support of matters LGBTQIA+, at least none that a search-savvy Germany-speaking friend could find. Why are Americans so much more interested in this than Germans?

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