Tesla Cars Are Built on Government Subsidies

(p. A13) Nowhere in Mr. Vance’s book, . . . , does the figure $7,500 appear–the direct taxpayer rebate to each U.S. buyer of Mr. Musk’s car. You wouldn’t know that 10% of all Model S cars have been sold in Norway–though Tesla’s own 10-K lists the possible loss of generous Norwegian tax benefits as a substantial risk to the company.
Barely developed in passing is that Tesla likely might not exist without a former State Department official whom Mr. Musk hired to explore “what types of tax credits and rebates Tesla might be able to drum up around its electric vehicles,” which eventually would include a $465 million government-backed loan.
And how Tesla came by its ex-Toyota factory in California “for free,” via a “string of fortunate turns” that allowed Tesla to float its IPO a few weeks later, is just a thing that happens in Mr. Vance’s book, not the full-bore political intrigue it actually was.
The fact is, Mr. Musk has yet to show that Tesla’s stock market value (currently $32 billion) is anything but a modest fraction of the discounted value of its expected future subsidies. In 2017, he plans to introduce his Model 3, a $35,000 car for the middle class. He expects to sell hundreds of thousands a year. Somehow we doubt he intends to make it easy for politicians to whip away the $7,500 tax credit just when somebody besides the rich can benefit from it–in which case the annual gift from taxpayers will quickly mount to several billion dollars each year.
Mother Jones, in a long piece about what Mr. Musk owes the taxpayer, suggested the wunderkind could be a “bit more grateful, a bit more humble.” Unmentioned was the shaky underpinning of this largess. Even today’s politicized climate modeling allows the possibility that climate sensitivity to carbon dioxide is far less than would justify incurring major expense to change the energy infrastructure of the world (and you certainly wouldn’t begin with luxury cars). Were this understanding to become widespread, the subliminal hum of government favoritism could overnight become Tesla’s biggest liability.

For the full commentary, see:
HOLMAN W. JENKINS, JR. “BUSINESS WORLD; The Savior Elon Musk; Tesla’s impresario is right about one thing: Humanity’s preservation is a legitimate government interest.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., May 30, 2015): A13.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date May 29, 2015.)

The book discussed in the commentary is:
Vance, Ashlee. Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future. New York: Ecco, 2015.

The Mother Jones article discussing government subsidies for Musk’s Tesla, is:
Harkinson, Josh. “Free Ride.” Mother Jones 38, no. 5 (Sept./Oct. 2013): 20-25.

A Swift Defense of Property Rights

(p. B1) When Taylor Swift speaks, even the most powerful company in the world listens.
Less than 24 hours after Ms. Swift complained publicly that Apple was not planning to pay royalties during a three-month trial period of its new streaming music service, the company changed course, and confirmed that it will pay its full royalty rates for music during the free trial.
“When I woke up this morning and read Taylor’s note, it really solidified that we need to make a change,” Eddy Cue, Apple’s senior vice president of Internet software and services, said in an interview late Sunday.
. . .
Ms. Swift, who last year pulled her music from Spotify in another dispute over royalties, called Apple’s policy “shocking, disappointing and completely unlike this historically progressive company.”
“We don’t ask you for free iPhones,” she added. “Please don’t ask us to provide you with our music for no compensation.”
. . .
(p. B5) Ms. Swift has long been outspoken on economic issues for musicians. In a piece in The Wall Street Journal last year, she wrote: “Valuable things should be paid for. It’s my opinion that music should not be free.”

For the full story, see:
BEN SISARIO. “Taylor Swift Criticism Spurs Apple to Change Royalties Policy.” The New York Times (Sat., JUNE 22, 2015): B1 & B5.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the date of the online version of the story is JUNE 21, 2015, and has the title “Taylor Swift Criticism Spurs Apple to Change Royalties Policy.”)

Little Progress Toward Complex Autonomous Robots

(p. A8) [In June 2015] . . . , the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a Pentagon research arm, . . . [held] the final competition in its Robotics Challenge in Pomona, Calif. With $2 million in prize money for the robot that performs best in a series of rescue-oriented tasks in under an hour, the event . . . offer[ed] what engineers refer to as the “ground truth” — a reality check on the state of the art in the field of mobile robotics.

A preview of their work suggests that nobody needs to worry about a Terminator creating havoc anytime soon. Given a year and a half to improve their machines, the roboticists, who shared details about their work in interviews before the contest in June, appear to have made limited progress.
. . .
“The extraordinary thing that has happened in the last five years is that we have seemed to make extraordininary progress in machine perception,” said Gill Pratt, the Darpa program manager in charge of the Robotics Challenge.
Pattern recognition hardware and software has made it possible for computers to make dramatic progress in computer vision and speech understanding. In contrast, Dr. Pratt said, little headway has been made in “cognition,” the higher-level humanlike processes required for robot planning and true autonomy. As a result, both in the Darpa contest and in the field of robotics more broadly, there has been a re-emphasis on the idea of human-machine partnerships.
“It is extremely important to remember that the Darpa Robotics Challenge is about a team of humans and machines working together,” he said. “Without the person, these machines could hardly do anything at all.”
In fact, the steep challenge in making progress toward mobile robots that can mimic human capabilities is causing robotics researchers worldwide to rethink their goals. Now, instead of trying to build completely autonomous robots, many researchers have begun to think instead of creating ensembles of humans and robots, an approach they describe as co-robots or “cloud robotics.”
Ken Goldberg, a University of California, Berkeley, roboticist, has called on the computing world to drop its obsession with singularity, the much-ballyhooed time when computers are predicted to surpass their human designers. Rather, he has proposed a concept he calls “multiplicity,” with diverse groups of humans and machines solving problems through collaboration.
For decades, artificial-intelligence researchers have noted that the simplest tasks for humans, such as reaching into a pocket to retrieve a quarter, are the most challenging for machines.
“The intuitive idea is that the more money you spend on a robot, the more autonomy you will be able to design into it,” said Rodney Brooks, an M.I.T. roboticist and co-founder two early companies, iRobot and Rethink Robotics. “The fact is actually the opposite is true: The cheaper the robot, the more autonomy it has.”
For example, iRobot’s Roomba robot is autonomous, but the vacuuming task it performs by wandering around rooms is extremely simple. By contrast, the company’s Packbot is more expensive, designed for defusing bombs, and must be teleoperated or controlled wirelessly by people.

For the full story, see:
JOHN MARKOFF. “A Reality Check for A.I.” The New York Times (Tues., MAY 26, 2015): D2.
(Note: ellipses, and bracketed expressions, added. I corrected a misspelling of “extraordinary.”)
(Note: the date of the online version of the story is MAY 25, 2015, and has the title “Relax, the Terminator Is Far Away.”)