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Note to readers: We're taking a break for the Fourth of July holiday, and hope you are, too! Cat Zakrzewski will back at the helm of this newsletter on Monday, July 8. Thanks for reading.
SAN FRANCISCO — My first “A-Ha” moment with the Tesla Model 3 came when I was fiddling with a hard plastic lid in the center console that just wouldn’t stay shut. Every time I slammed the cover down it glided back open, almost as if it were mocking me. All of a sudden, a message appeared on screen: “Close console lid gently.”
And voilà, I managed to secure the cover — an otherwise indiscriminate piece of plastic — into place.
The Tesla Model 3 is not merely a car but a hyper-connected piece of technology that knows what ails you, what hazards your surroundings may pose and tries to predict your every next move. But is this the way we’ll all be driving – or letting the car drive us – in the future?
I’m spending two days with a Model 3, the dual-motor, all-wheel-drive version of Tesla’s mass-market sport sedan. It’s an electric-blue-colored window into one company’s vision of the future of driving, if not THE future of driving. It’s at least a preview of what’s to come when cars go from gas-guzzling rustbuckets powered by explosions to software-driven supercomputers fueled by data. It has a “Fart Mode" to boot.
And more customers may soon be able to try the car themselves. Tesla announced record deliveries on Tuesday, overcoming shipping and logistics problems that plagued it in the first quarter. From April through June, the Associated Press reported, Tesla delivered 95,200 vehicles, more than the 90,700 it delivered in the final quarter of last year. The deliveries record is welcome news after Tesla faced a stock slump through much of June and weathered fears that demand for its vehicles had fallen amid a dwindling federal tax credit.
Oh and in case you’re wondering, the Model 3 is a joy to drive. With all its power available instantly thanks to the marvel of its electric motors, a touch of the accelerator pedal makes you feel like you’re basically on a glidepath to space. Let go of it and regenerative braking pulls you back to earth, seizing all that power back into the batteries to slow down the car — and extending its range in the process. The entire experience is built around that simple interaction and Tesla seems to have it down.
But, I drained about two-thirds of my Model 3’s battery without ever leaving the Bay Area, through a combination of sustained highway cruising and spending way too much time in stop-and-go traffic. Much of the journey took place with Tesla’s much-lauded autopilot software suite engaged. It’s jarring at first to have the car hurtle through space-time without so much as an accelerator input, but really, this is what cruise control must have felt like to a person in the 1960s.
Autopilot features keep the car within the lane lines and steer it from on-ramp to off-ramp, maintaining speed and safe distance from the cars ahead. The car can make lane changes automatically with input from the turn signal stalk.
The really eye-opening stuff happens once you activate a feature called “Navigate on Autopilot.”
Navigate on Autopilot uses destination inputs (think Google Maps) to guide the car from point A to point B. The car decides what lane to use for the fastest trip. Again, the driver confirms any lane changes the car might want through the turn signal stalk. But there’s a further layer of automation.
Poke around in the menus enough and you’ll find the option to disable lane change confirmation. This is where it gets interesting. In an ideal scenario, the car will navigate from on-ramp to off-ramp without inputs from the driver — who, of course, is supposed to keep their hands on the wheel and remain engaged at all times.
“This does not make your vehicle autonomous,” the menus say.
And it shows. In Navigate on Autopilot, the car didn’t seem to know when it was about to be cut off by another driver, or anticipate lane changes from cars ahead that were using their turn signal indicators. I sensed it guessing and checking, moving away from a lane and then back into the center when it sensed another car.
At one point in a curve, the car veered unprompted between lanes at a slant, leading me to take over in one spot a few miles from the Bay Bridge. Perhaps there is an explanation such as user error or my own unfamiliarity with the system. But I didn’t have enough confidence in what it was doing to keep it active for the entirety of a 30-mile highway trip.
And here lies probably the most important lesson about Tesla’s model of automation — on day one or six months in, as I learned from a friendly Tesla owner at a San Francisco supercharging station: Trust but verify. You’re in control. It’s not self-driving — rather, done right, it’s a type of plugged-in hyper-aware driving that eliminates certain hassles that accompany daily driving. Navigate on Autopilot was seamless at one point in traffic, shifting lanes one at a time and putting me into position to exit an off-ramp. It could be tremendously useful for long-haul trips and eliminating the physical fatigue of driving, including the engine noises and pedal pushing and yanking of the steering wheel.
But responsible use of the features should still leave you mentally exhausted after that kind of trip.
BITS: Facebook and YouTube are releasing new content moderation efforts to combat “sensational health claims,” Daniela Hernandez and Robert McMillan at the Wall Street Journal report. Both sites have struggled to prevent the spread of medical misinformation, playing what some advocates argue is an unchecked role in the spread of public health crises.
YouTube said it will work with doctors to identify channels promoting fake cures to demote them in search algorithms and, in some cases, make them ineligible for advertising money. Facebook will also reduce distribution of “low-quality health content” in its News Feed, the company reported yesterday.
The policy changes come after the Journal presented the companies with examples of misinformation appearing alongside content promoting legitimate medical information. YouTube hosted videos advocating a fake “black salve” cancer treatment that people viewed millions of times as of Monday, according to the Journal. Journal reporters also found a Facebook page with more than 60,000 likes promoting baking soda as a cancer treatment.
The content is similar to that unearthed by my colleague Abby Ohlheiser, who released a report last week on YouTube's and Facebook's epidemic of directing cancer patients toward misleading medical advice and fake cures. On Facebook, she uncovered groups dedicated to unproven cancer cures that had thousands of members. Even with Facebook's new standards, Abby points out that group members will still be able to easily access misinformation posted in the private forums.
NIBBLES: U.S. Customs and Border Protection has suspended business with Perceptics, a contractor suspected to be at fault for a data breach that exposed tens of thousands of classified government documents, my colleague Drew Harwell reported on Tuesday. The agency cited “evidence of conduct indicating a lack of business honesty or integrity” as its rationale for suspending the license plate scanning and surveillance company, Drew reports.
CBP officials initially played down the breach, saying that fewer than 100,000 photos of travelers had been breached. But Drew found a trove of sensitive information on the dark Web, including detailed schematics of technology at key points of entry and various classified CBP documents.
Further investigation could lead to a blacklisting of Perceptics from government contract work. According to the company’s promotional materials it is CBP’s sole vendor for license plate scanners, Drew reports.
It's unclear how or whether the suspension will affect border operations, Drew reports. Perceptics is also facing a potential investigation by the Canadian Border Service Agency, which also buys its technology.
BYTES: House Democrats are trying to head off a July hearing about Facebook's new cryptocurrency project by asking the company to stop development on the project until regulators can investigate, the Verge's Makena Kelly reports. Lawmakers from the House Financial Services Committee outlined their concerns to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg and Calibra CEO David Marcus in a letter yesterday.
“If products and services like these are left improperly regulated and without sufficient oversight, they could pose systemic risks that endanger U.S. and global financial stability,” Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the House Financial Services Committee, wrote in the letter. “These vulnerabilities could be exploited and obscured by bad actors, as other cryptocurrencies, exchanges, and wallets have been in the past.”
Facebook's announcement of the cryptocurrency project last month set off an immediate firestorm of concern from lawmakers in the United States and abroad. The Senate Banking Committee will also host a hearing about the Libra project on July 16, where both Democrats and Republicans have requested more information from the company about how it will address consumer privacy protections with the project.
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