Why do we care about COVID-19 deaths more than driving-related deaths?

Working with third-year medical students involves much struggling with SQL, R, and data, but also chatting about the topics of the day. This year it is coronavirus, of course. Of the nine M3s that I work with most commonly, at least one believes that he has already had COVID-19 and recovered. Absent significant testing capability for infection or antibodies, however, these bright young people are as much in the dark as anyone else.

Leaving aside the true alarmists, estimates of likely U.S. deaths from COVID-19 seem to range from 50,000 to 500,000 in a “life goes on” scenario. The prospect of this many deaths has motivated us to shut down society and mobilize for what people say is a “war” (let’s hope it isn’t like any of the wars that the U.S. has fought and lost since 1960, e.g., Vietnam War, War on Cancer, War on Poverty, Iraq War, Afghanistan War, etc.).

This is as it should be, right? Let’s take a mid-range estimate. The prospect of 275,000 people dying is terrible and should motivate us to bold action. Yet roughly 36,500 Americans die every year in motor vehicle-related accidents (NHTSA data from 2018, the latest available).

This led to a discussion regarding human psychology. We are pretty confident that there will be more than 275,000 car-related deaths over the next 8 years in the U.S. Maybe this should motivate us to bold action, but it actually does motivate us to do almost nothing.

In the 24th year of the smartphone, we don’t bother with a car-to-smartphone communication system, for example, that would reduce pedestrian fatalities (since the car would know where all of the pedestrians were; I wrote about this in 2016; ordinary Bluetooth range seems to be roughly 100 meters outdoors). Considering the nation as a whole, we don’t invest much in separated (e.g., with a curb) bike lanes like they do in Denmark and Holland. We don’t cut the speed limit on the Interstate back to 55 or lower. We don’t say that cars have to have electronic governors so that it simply is impossible to speed (“I’m sorry, Dave, I feel you pressing the accelerator, but I can’t go faster than 35 mph on this stretch of road”). We don’t re-engineer the road network to eliminate traffic lights in favor of (a) traffic circles, and (b) overpasses. We don’t put in a car-to-traffic light communication system so that the car knows when the light is red and will hit the brakes before we inadvertently drive through an intersection (imagine a traffic light that broadcasts in Bluetooth “I am the light at Massachusetts Avenue and Vassar St. and am currently green for Vassar St.”). We don’t ask America’s nerds to stop working on clever Internet ad technology and try to come up with innovative ideas for reducing the carnage on our roads. We’re willing to invest $trillions to reduce the death toll from coronaplague, but hardly a dime to build centerline dividers on more of our two-lane roads so as to eliminate head-on collisions.

As with most discussions about psychology, we came to no conclusion!

Readers: What is the answer? Why do we accept that hundreds of thousands of Americans will die in the next 10-20 years because of our failure to invest in engineering and infrastructure today, but we can’t accept that up to hundreds of thousands of Americans will die in the next year because we didn’t do a sufficiently thorough shutdown?


  • Sweden’s Vision Zero, kicked off in 1997, which worked to reduce fatalities until it stopped working in 2013.
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When do car makers cut prices?

We’d like to buy or lease a new car, but right now we have two cars and almost nowhere to go. I expected to fight through traffic to Harvard Medical School every day this month. Instead, I’ve been on Webex and Zoom. There’s no point going to the supermarket, which has been stripped bare by the hoarding neighbors who, just a few months ago, were touting their superior virtue and empathy level compared to the out-of-state Deplorables who voted for Trump. We can’t go to the art museums, which are closed. We can’t go to restaurants, which are closed.

At the current rate of usage, our current fleet will last for at least 40 years (an aquarium maintenance service operator told us that she now has more than 300,000 miles on her Honda Odyssey!).

Shouldn’t the car manufacturers be having coronavirus special deals? A car plainly isn’t worth as much as it was two months ago. Why are the prices mostly the same? Are people actually buying cars at a similar rate to what it was a year ago? Is the shutdown of car factories roughly balancing the collapse of demand? Even with the U.S. and Europe paralyzed, Japan and China are open for business, right? They can produce a ton of cars, can’t they?

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Middle class Californians pay for all Tesla owners’ electricity

“Top Seventeen Surprises From The First Year Of Driving A Tesla EV” (Forbes):

I was amazed when my electricity bill went down after I got the car, rather than up. This is because in California, EV owners get access to a special electricity pricing plan that is much cheaper at night and more expensive in the afternoons. Charging the car at night is of course a win, but I also moved things like pumping the pool to the night, and so the overall bill dropped. And of course my gasoline bill went to zero for this car.

In other words, Californians who struggle to pay rising rents and afford a 10-year-old Ford Focus pay the rich guy’s electric bill, at least for his Tesla and also for part of the pool pump. What better way to fight inequality?

(In Massachusetts, no similar deal is available and thus it costs about the same to buy “fuel” for Tesla, per mile, as it does to fuel an efficient gasoline-powered car of the same size.)

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Tesla stock price versus worldwide market share

From a friend:

I hate day trading but can’t help but feel like I missed out on Tesla stock. Some people say it is going up another 20x, which would make them worth many trillions of dollars.

How can the big automakers continue to ignore Tesla, which is now a Colossus astride the stock market at least?

What if they’re managing the real world of car sales? Roughly 80 million cars are sold each year annually (CNBC). Tesla accounted for 367,500 of those (source). That’s 0.4 percent market share.

So perhaps there is no point in worrying about a 0.4 percent loss of sales unless Tesla can convert its stratospheric market cap into R&D money that will enable the company to pull ahead of Toyota, Honda, Audi, and BMW in overall engineering.

Separately, my Irish friend, a huge car enthusiast (owns an Aston Martin, a Land Rover, a vintage Mercedes, etc.), got his first ride in a Tesla S down in Charleston, South Carolina. “That was rubbish,” he said, after we got out of the 20-minute Uber trip from Signature to downtown. Interior noise, ride smoothness, seat comfort, and upholstery (“was that cheap vinyl?”) were not up to his standards for a luxury vehicle.

(By contrast, he loved an Uber ride in the front seat of a new Jeep Wrangler Unlimited, back from the USS Yorktown (CV-10; below), admittedly fairly noisy with the soft top.)

Finally, my friend with the Tesla X recently traded it in on a Tesla S. The “autopilot” software is getting worse, not better, in his opinion. The system gets confused about oncoming traffic on two-lane roads, freaks out, and hits the brakes unnecessarily. (Our 2018 Honda Odyssey, roughly once per month, similarly warns spuriously about an oncoming car, but the system does not apply brakes by itself.) He says that the car won’t use regenerative braking when the battery is cold (i.e., most of the time here in Massachusetts). Tesla has concluded that the batteries don’t like the sudden injection of power unless they’ve previously been warmed up, as they are during the first couple of minutes of being connected to a Supercharger.

Readers: What accounts for Tesla’s huge market cap? Is it achievement in the domain of self-driving technology, potentially revolutionary for sales? This market research firm does not put Tesla even in the top 10.

Bonus: demonstrating my own commitment to the battery-electric vehicle revolution by sitting in a 2005 Cirrus SR20 while wearing a Nissan LEAF cap:


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Tesla proves that it is easier to deal with government of China than government of Michigan

Annals of free markets #7231… “Tesla Model 3 floodgates open in China next week” (CNET):

Now, with local production in Shanghai, Tesla can skirt the ongoing US-China trade war. The occasion is also monumental for a different reason — Tesla’s Chinese factory is one of the first solely owned by a foreign automaker.

How are things back here in the Land of the Free (market)? Wikipedia shows that Tesla is restricted or banned from selling its products in 20 out of 50 states. It is banned from servicing its vehicles in 5 out of 50. “Our Tesla Model 3 Suffered a Catastrophic Failure While Parked” (Car and Driver):

… he received an ominous push notification from the Tesla app that the car had “suffered a failure and will no longer drive.” … it’s also an extraordinarily rare case of any car leaving us stranded, something unacceptable for any new vehicle, particularly one that costs $57,690 and with merely 5286 miles on the odometer. … even on Christmas Day, Tesla roadside assistance got a tow truck to us in about a half hour, which brought the car to the closest service center: Toledo, Ohio, because Tesla isn’t allowed to operate company-owned service centers in Michigan.

After a two-day wait, we were informed that there are issues with the rear drive unit, the pyrotechnic battery disconnect, and the 12-volt battery and that they are waiting for parts.

Separately, another recent Car and Driver article has a calculation by Mazda that its own modest-range electric car only emits less CO2 than a diesel-powered version after the car is driven at least 50,000 miles. It looks like a Tesla with a big battery would have to go 200,000+ miles before there was a net reduction in CO2 emissions compared to an efficient petroleum-powered car.

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Tesla 3 owner’s review

Keren Schlomy, an environmental law expert here in Cambridge, wrote on Facebook…

I was asked how I like my Tesla 3. This is how I replied:

Imagine meeting a prospective partner on a dating site. Or mail order bride. Their picture is really hot. They write about all the things they can do and how they’d love to do them with you. You are interested but it turns out they need a lot more money than originally promised to come be with you.

They arrive and are as beautiful as they look, but you find it is a fragile beauty. Their paint is easily pocked by the littlest nits of daily driving. You wish you had invested in that expensive ceramic coat protector product right up front but you didn’t. Now she (our car is named Joules) doesn’t look so hot. She tells you she’s too fragile to take a shower, you have to wash her by hand every time if you don’t want to damage her looks even more.

She said she could go all the way, whenever you wanted, wherever you wanted. But you learn that is not true. You were hoping she could keep you warm on cold winter days and nights, and she can, but only if you let her stay in bed. If you want her to go all the way she is cold to you, or makes you stop and juice her up before she will get you there.

She’s a fast ride, as promised, but take her out if the city and she’s just a little buggy. She promised smooth cruising but she’s a distracted driver and brakes frequently and unexpectedly to look at the scenery. Sometimes she doesn’t know where she is and thinks the highway speed limit is 30 and won’t go faster, so you frequently assume control. And she is easily blinded by the sun or reflections. If she is blinded in front or on the sides she refuses to cruise control, even if on a highway in the middle of cruising, so be prepared to take over.

She’s a showhorse but it’s difficult to get her to do basic things like wipe her windows or change her temperature. She demands you look at her and won’t let you do it by feeling her up. In fact, there is nothing to feel up. No tactile experience of knobs, dials or buttons. And she demands you look at her several times instead of the road to get her to change her behavior.

Her profile said she could drive herself on the highway but she seems to be missing knowledge and it’s scary to let her do so, be ready to take control back any time. She said she could park herself, but in the real world she’s not so good at it. If you want her to fit in a tight space and not damage herself or others, it’s best to do it yourself. In fact, a lot of things she said she could do herself .. well let’s say her résumé is inflated.

You have to really love her to forgive all of this. Me, I learned to live with her but if she wanted me to bring her sister home I wouldn’t do it. Maybe her older brother, but he doesn’t come cheap.


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Why aren’t AWD cars half electric?

We’re still shopping for a new car to supplement the (awesome) 2018 Honda Odyssey. As we mull the options (waiting to test-drive the Mazda CX-30, for example), one thing that jumps out at me is that AWD (four-wheel drive) continues to be implemented via mechanical driveshafts, differentials, gears, etc. We’re about 12 years into the modern electric car era (Tesla Roadster was launched in 2008). Given the volumes of all-electric cars currently being produced by multiple manufacturers, shouldn’t it be cheaper to implement AWD via low-horsepower electric motors at the back wheels to supplement a conventional FWD system?

A car at highway speeds uses only about 20 hp (source). Thus, even for providing a certain amount of improved handling in slippery conditions, wouldn’t a 10 hp motor on each rear wheel be sufficient for escaping an icy driveway and touching up handling dynamics on the road? Acura announced this for high-performance cars in 2011 with 27 hp per rear wheel (Car and Driver), but the typical consumer just wants to overcome fear of getting stuck (FOGS). It seems that Acura is currently shipping this system in their MDX vehicle, using 36 hp per rear wheel (source). The MDX weighs over 4,000 lbs. For a lighter vehicle with fewer aspirations to greatness, shouldn’t 10 hp per rear wheel be enough? Why isn’t that cheaper than all of the mechanical parts to transmit power from the engine to the back of the car and then distribute between the wheels? A bit of searching on Alibaba shows that a 10 hp electric motor costs about $150 in small quantities. Presumably a car manufacturer would pay much less.

Plainly it actually is cheaper to do it the 1970s mechanical way. But why?


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When cars drive themselves, luxury will be cars that don’t drive themselves and a track on which to relive the 20th century?

It would be fun to own a new mid-engine Corvette, but for the fact that the average daytime speed on Boston-area highways is now down around 25 mph. A 1957 Fiat 500 with 13 hp offers ample performance for commuting.

Aside from the chronic traffic jams of a country of 330 million trying to use roads built for 150 million, what is the point of a high-performance car when human drivers may soon be outlawed on public roads? Six young people died in “school shootings” in 2019 (NYT; but one seems to have been more of a personal dispute that ended up being fatally settled on school grounds) and that is enough carnage to prompt roughly half of Americans to demand that the government take away their Second Amendment rights. The carnage due to human drivers is roughly 8,000X worse: about 40,000 people killed per year here in the U.S. Especially given that it is not a Constitutionally-protected right, do we really want to take the risk of 17-year-olds in 6,000 lb. SUVs?

Taking a rare break from its all-impeachment-all-the-time format, the NYT gives us a story about residential clubs built around a race track: “Country Clubs Where Drives Can Hit 150 M.P.H.” Get up in the morning, zip around the track in the Corvette, then let the robot take you to work.

Some excerpts:

But the Concours Club and its ilk do not come cheap, with six-figure initiation fees and five-figure dues that make private golf clubs look reasonably priced.

The idea for Concours was born of escaping the winter up north. “Five years ago, I’m sitting down in Miami in our condo in South Beach and there’s every kind of car outside,” said Neil Gehani, a real estate investor and the club’s founder. “I thought, there has to be a club down here.”

After a call to his club outside Chicago, the Autobahn Country Club, where he raced Ferraris and got hooked on country club racing, he found there wasn’t one in South Florida. “I was told the land was too expensive,” he said. “That wasn’t acceptable to me. I wanted to be in Miami and I needed a private auto country club.”

The club, which is within Miami’s Opa Locka private airport, 14 miles west of Miami Beach, has cost $70 million to build so far. Mr. Gehani said 40 founding members were invited to join, paying a one-time $350,000 initiation fee with no annual dues. The club just released 100 additional spots, with an initiation fee of $150,000 and annual dues of $35,000. It plans to limit those memberships to 200.

Other tracks helped inspire the Miami club. The Thermal Club, outside Palm Springs, Calif., has four tracks over 450 acres, two restaurants and a BMW performance driving school. The club has 48 bungalows for overnight stays, as well as 268 home sites overlooking the racetracks. The initiation is $85,000, with monthly dues of $1,200.

Members at the Thermal Club are obligated to buy a lot and build a house within five years, said Tim Rogers, the club’s founder. The lots cost from $750,000 to $900,000, with the finished 8,000-square-foot homes running about $3 million.

Good fodder for politicians stirring up envy with talk of inequality?

(Fake News alert: the Opa Locka airport is, in fact, publicly owned (by Miami-Dade County) and “open to the public” (airnav), not “private” as the NYT says. Google Maps shows a track under construction next to KOPF, but not obviously “within” (usually tough given that the FAA can be strict about non-aviation uses of airport facilities; this might be county-owned land that was outside the airport fence? Google Maps shows a public street separating the track from the airport proper).)

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2020 Hyundai Sonata is as quiet as a Camry or Accord…

… at least as measured objectively.

The 2020 Hyundai Sonata is rolling out of the Alabama factory now (Korean brains and American brawn?).

A candid media presentation shows that “road noise” (unclear what speed) was 63.5 dBA for the new Sonata versus 63 for the Camry and 64 for the Accord. Hyundai has pulled out the same technical stops as Toyota and Honda, i.e., using windshield glass laminated with a sound-absorbing layer of plastic (“acoustic glass”). All but the lowest trim levels also get acoustic glass for the front side windows.

(Car and Driver did a comparison test in which the Sonata was rated 2 out of 5 and objectively measured 1 dBA noisier than the Accord (and 2 dBA noisier than the Camry). The authors noted that “A small tornado’s worth of wind noise makes its way into the cabin, which is surprising because the Sonata is the only car here with dual-pane glass in the front doors.”)

Hyundai is pushing hard with smartphone integration. Their “digital key” (Android-only, perhaps due to Apple restrictions on using near field communication?) lets people open, start, and drive the car without a key. At the SEL trim level and above, the car can be remote-started from an app that works on iPhone or Android.

Now that we live in a USB-C world, of course the car, like every other car, is crammed with USB-A charging ports.

Even the lowest trim level includes Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. It looks like the next step up, SEL, is the minimum for the “Blue Link” remote start, heated seats, automatic temperature control, blind spot assistance, rear cross-traffic assistance, etc. This is priced at $25,500. It is an extra $1,200 to get the digital key and some other goodies via a “convenience” package. It looks as though the comparable Honda Accord is the EX, at $27,770. (But the proper way to compare car costs, I think, is to look at the monthly lease payment since that encapsulates the market’s belief regarding likely resale value. See this example with a Tesla 3.)

Readers: Since the prices are similar, maybe it comes down to looks and style? Here’s the Sonata, the Accord, and the Camry. Which one looks the best?

(In other car news: The much-anticipated 2020 Subaru Legacy turned out to be a flop, losing a Car and Driver comparison test to the Nissan Altima AWD version and coming in last in the 5-car test cited above.)

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