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2019年11月27日

年底很快就要到了,無論是投資者還是特斯拉的車主都在期待著答案。

在今年10月特斯拉的季度財報電話會議上,特斯拉的首席執行官埃隆?馬斯克確認了一個驚人的猜測——特斯拉承諾已久的全自動駕駛汽車套件終于要來了。

馬斯克表示︰“雖然時間很緊張……但我們年內很有可能率先發布功能完整的全自動駕駛套件。”

特斯拉尚未就“率先發布”的內容給出任何具體說明,而且特斯拉愛跳票是出了名的。不過自從今年2月開始,特斯拉就一口咬定了年底這個時間節點。看來至少有少部分的特斯拉車主是有望在幾周內體驗到全自動駕駛功能的。

各大汽車廠商在無人駕駛領域已經競爭了十幾年了,到目前為止,還沒有人能夠實現真正意義上的全自動無人駕駛(Full Self-Driving,以下簡稱為FSD)。如果特斯拉在今年確實如約發布了全自動駕駛套件,這將是公關上的一場巨大勝利,至少讓特斯拉在名義上成為了無人駕駛領域的贏家。特斯拉表示,作為獎勵,該公司將從這幾年未入賬的預付款中拿出5億美元計入季度收益項,這至少將在短期內改變特斯拉的財務狀況。

特斯拉並沒有回復我們的多次置評請求。不過特斯拉承認,即便FSD功能發布了,車輛也無法實現全天候的全自動無人駕駛。馬斯克在10月的財報會議上表示︰“汽車雖然可以全自動駕駛,但它有時仍然需要人的管理和干預。我們只是說它在功能上完整了。而且它不意味著在任何情形、任何地方、任何極端狀況下都可以實現全自動無人駕駛,它只是已經適合了大部分情況。”

不過現在已經有充分證據表明,特斯拉車主在使用現有的無人駕駛功能時,經常不按照操作指南對車輛進行必要的主動干預——當然,從馬斯克的話來看,即便是在FSD功能發布後,也有一些情形對FSD來說是不可控的。而且這種情形已經造成了多起不同程度的交通事故。

在這種情況下,即將發布的FSD功能很有可能埋下利益沖突的種子。一方面,它對特斯拉的財務狀況和股價無疑是一個利好消息,另一方面,它也給公共安全埋下了一定的隱患。

彩虹盡頭的黃金

這5億美元的遞延收益是怎麼來的呢?俗話說“羊毛出在羊身上”,它當然還是特斯拉的車主們。2016年以後購車的車主們可以選擇多繳納7000美元的定金,對這項功能進行預訂。這樣他們的車里就會預裝全自動駕駛所需的車載電腦和其他相關硬件,只是它們沒有軟件——因為軟件還在開發當中。一旦軟件開發完畢,這些車輛就能夠通過無線軟件更新功能,將軟件下載到預先安裝好的硬件中。不過第一批FSD軟件究竟是會推送給所有車主,還是只在小範圍內測試,特斯拉並沒有明確表態。

在FSD功能推出後,特斯拉就會將5億美元的預售金額計為收益。特斯拉在今年6月表示,它將在12個月內實現這個目標。此外還有一部分與FSD相關的遞延收益,將在每台車子8年的生命周期里被逐漸計入收益項,據特斯拉稱,這部分的金額將達到3.16億美元。

特斯拉在今年10月公布的這5億美元收益將平均計入接下來的4個季度,也就是每季度新增1.25億美元收益。盡管特斯拉的資產負債表在每個季度都有不小的波動,但我們只需要代入前幾個季度的數據,就能夠大概看出這筆收益對它的財務狀況的影響。比如,如果在2019年第三季度的營收中增加1.25億美元,那麼特斯拉的運營利潤將增加近50%。如果將這筆錢增加第2019年第二季度的營收中,它的運營虧損將下降74%。由于人們普遍認為特斯拉是一家增長型公司,這些變化必然會極大影響到分析師對特斯拉未來增長前景的預測。

“功能完整”VS完全自主

首先需要提醒的是,此前特斯拉就在以“內測”的形式,積極推廣半自主化的無人駕駛功能。而且特斯拉也已經警告稱,即便是在FSD功能發布後,它也需要進一步的優化和完善。

在10月的電話會議上,馬斯克明確表示,特斯拉的初代FSD功能尚不能夠應對一些“極端情況”,因此駕駛員的干預仍然是必要的。所謂“極端情況”,是指街面上發生的那些確實無法預測的事件,比如修路、路面上突然出現的大型物體,以及神出鬼沒的行人和自行車等等。

一些“極端情況”可能已經誤導過特斯拉現有的自動駕駛功能,比如它針對高速公路的Autopilot功能。其中的一種極端情況就是高速公路上的重型拖車。據報道,目前至少已經發生兩起無人駕駛狀態下的特斯拉因為撞上高速公路上的重型拖車而導致人員死亡的案例。

“極端情況”也是大多數汽車廠商決定暫緩推出無人駕駛汽車的一個主要原因。由于各大廠商對這些“極端情況”遲遲拿不出解決方案,在過去的一年里,整個行業對無人駕駛技術的預期也大幅放緩。福特和通用汽車等老牌廠商已經放棄了就無人駕駛汽車何時上市給出任何明確的時間表。去年,Uber的一輛無人駕駛汽車撞死一名行人後,Uber也暫停了它對無人駕駛汽車的研究。Waymo雖然已經發布了它的無人駕駛出租車,但範圍卻僅限于菲尼克斯這一個城市,因為這里的車流量不大,氣候也以晴好天氣為主——換句話說,在這種條件下,可以把“極端情況”出現的概率壓到最低。

相比之下,特斯拉的目標是為全球車主提供全工況、全自動的無人駕駛功能。不過它並未明確表示這項技術在發布後可以立即在所有條件下使用。

對于外行來說,特斯拉在這個問題上的語言可能存在一定的誤導性。馬斯克在描述該公司即將發布的FSD功能時使用了“功能完整”這個詞,他在這里指的是一系列獨立的功能的集合,包括那些此前已經發布的功能——如高速公路自動駕駛、自動駐車,以及最近發布的“Smart Summon”停車場自動召喚功能等等。而要達到“功能完整”狀態,首先需要解決的是中等車速下的市內道路駕駛問題,比如識別停車標志和紅綠燈等。馬斯克在10月表示,這部分功能將把已經發布的“高速公路自動駕駛”和“停車場自動駐車”功能連接起來。

即便這些功能都具備了,也不等于特斯拉的車主在開車去超市的路上可以悠閑地看報紙了。馬斯克今年10月的原話是︰“我所說的‘功能完整’,指的是車輛從家開到工作單位的過程中,很可能不需要人工干預了。”

“很有可能”這句話隱含著不少潛台詞。就像它的Autopilot功能一樣,特斯拉會繼續正式要求車主在使用FSD功能時,將雙手放在方向盤上,並對車輛進行監控,以幫助FSD系統處理任何極端情況。

FSD究竟有多靠譜?這一點從特斯拉9月26日發布的Smart Summon智能召喚功能中可見端倪。Smart Summon也是特斯拉的FSD套件的一部分,它可以將車輛從停車場中自動“召喚”至車主面前。不過該功能一經發布便遇到了不少的小麻煩,比如一些嚇人的小事故和財產損失等,YouTube上就有不少相關視頻。而它“鬼車”般的騷操作也嚇壞了不少行人和其他車輛。《消費者報告》(Consumer Reports)認為這是一項“有缺陷”的功能,而且“對消費者並沒有太多明顯的好處”。

然而隨著Smart Summon功能的發布,特斯拉又在其第三季度營收中計入了3000萬美元的無人駕駛收入,為該公司令人驚訝的第三季度利潤做了不大不小的貢獻。

失敗是成功之母

不過,特斯拉的領導層和支持者都認為,像Smart Summon這樣的軟件雖然存在一定瑕疵,卻是在打造真正意義上的無人駕駛汽車的過程中不可或缺的一步。關于這一點,最極端的言論當屬馬斯克在2016年一段話,他認為,媒體一味夸大無人駕駛技術的撞車風險,這樣做的代價,是會使很多人將來失去生命。

馬斯克表示︰“如果你寫了一些負面的文章,成功地勸阻了人們對無人駕駛汽車敬而遠之,那你就是在殺人。”

馬斯克的這番激進言論,在邏輯上其實是自洽的。與所有形式的機器學習一樣,無人駕駛技術的算法也依賴于大量的案例數據。特斯拉在無人駕駛上的高歌猛進,雖然會帶來一定的風險,但也在數據收集上讓該公司具備了重大的優勢。

你可能不知道的是,在特斯拉汽車上路行駛的過程中,車輛會在所謂的“影子模式”下悄悄記錄車主的駕駛決策數據,並對無人駕駛系統進行測試。不過它只是記錄系統決策以供進一步分析,即便這時車輛並不處于自動駕駛狀態。現在,特斯拉已經賣出了80萬輛具備無人駕駛功能的汽車,有分析師估計,特斯拉已經記錄了18億英里的行駛里程數據。當然,如果只看實際的無人駕駛里程的話,Waymo的成績要好于特斯拉或者其他任何一個競爭者,但特斯拉卻記錄了關于各種駕駛條件的更多原始數據資料。

在FSD功能發布後,如果算上有車主在場但未實施干預的里程,那麼特斯拉很快就會在實際無人駕駛總里程上超越Waymo。今年10月,馬斯克曾經表示,在FSD功能發布後,隨著該功能的穩步改進,“從特斯拉的角度來看,我們認為總有一天,它可以達到沒有車主監督也能夠安全駕駛的地步。”可以想見,要實施這些改進,特斯拉就必然要通過FSD功能在現實世界中收集一些額外的數據。不過特斯拉並未回應我們的請求,對該問題做進一步澄清。

在FSD功能的有關技術和財務問題上,特斯拉是有很大的自由裁量權的。據非營利組織汽車安全中心(Center for Auto Safety)介紹,美國在聯邦層面對于全自動無人駕駛或FSD這種高級駕駛輔助技術尚無統一的性能標準,也沒有可以參考的規定。所以特斯拉可以自己決定什麼時候發布FSD。關于特斯拉就FSD何時可供公眾安全使用有無內部標準,特斯拉並未回復《財富》雜志的詢問。

至于何時將遞延收入計入營收,這個決定也是由特斯拉與它的會計伙伴共同做出的。這種情況也不鮮見。JMP Securities公司的特斯拉問題分析師喬?奧沙表示︰“很多公司都在為一個非常棘手的問題感到頭疼,那就是你能夠把哪些東西計入收益。”

目前來說,最關鍵的問題就是,公眾對馬斯克和他的特斯拉公司有多信任?如果特斯拉認為它的技術不會給公眾帶來安全風險,並表示這個決定沒有任何財務方面的考慮,公眾會相信他們的這種說法嗎?

汽車安全中心的執行主任杰森?萊文認為,特斯拉不見得一定能夠贏得消費者的這種信任。他表示︰“到目前為止,特斯拉在質量控制、系統安全性,以及在教育消費者他們的技術的局限性上,都表現出了比較傲慢的態度。所以人們沒有理由相信,特斯拉短期內會推出‘完全安全的全自動駕駛’軟件。在公共安全和企業收益的矛盾上,所有汽車廠商都會面臨利益沖突,但大多數廠商都沒有像特斯拉這樣做出如此明顯的選擇。”

還有一些觀察人士認為,特斯拉為FSD制訂如此激進的時間表,其動機是很純粹的。奧沙表示︰“坦率地說,這與財務方面關系不大,主要還是由于他們具有推動技術極限的強烈欲望。我同意一些人的批評,他們的技術有時也會‘翻車’,但我並不認為他們這樣做是為了提高利潤。對技術的追求已經融入了他們的DNA里。”

雖然特斯拉自己對FSD的表態還算謹慎,但一些已經體驗過FSD的人卻實實在在地被驚艷了一把。馬特?喬伊斯是一名總體上較為看好特斯拉的獨立分析師,他最近搶先體驗了特斯拉無人駕駛技術在城市道路上的表現。他表示,特斯拉的FSD功能已經相當厲害了,雖然它並非完美無缺。“它雖然比較原始,但已經非常、非常驚艷了。它實現了15分鐘的全自動無人駕駛。”而且還在弗里蒙特市的街道上完成了一系列真實場景中的復雜的駕駛任務。

不過,就連喬伊斯也不相信特斯拉能夠實現年底前發布FSD的目標。“我認為,他們會讓人們大吃一驚,但馬斯克的時間表則未必能夠兌現。”

在這個問題上,馬斯克的腳踩的是油門還是剎車呢?年底很快就要到了,無論是投資者還是特斯拉的車主都在期待著答案。(財富中文網)

譯者︰樸成奎

\During Tesla’s quarterly earnings call in October, CEO Elon Musk reiterated a striking projection: the company is on the verge of releasing its long-promised Full Self-Driving package.

“While it’s going to be tight,” Musk said, “It still does appear that we will be . . . in early access release of a feature-complete Full Self-Driving feature this year.”

Tesla has not clarified what an “early access” release would entail, and the electric carmaker is notorious for flexible timelines. But the end-of-year goal has held steady since at least February—and with the end of 2019 fast approaching, that would mean at least some Tesla owners could get Full Self-Driving within a matter of weeks.

Any release of Full Self-Driving (FSD) this year would be a massive public relations coup, giving Tesla at least some claim to be the winner of the decade-plus race to create a self-driving car. As a sizable bonus, the company says it would also allow nearly $500 million in revenue from pre-orders of the self-driving features, held off the books for years, to be recognized in quarterly earnings statements. This has the potential to transform Tesla’s near-term financial outlook.

Tesla did not respond to multiple requests to comment for this story. But it has admitted that cars will not be fully autonomous when Full Self-Driving is released. “There’s the car being able to be autonomous, but requiring supervision and intervention at times. That’s feature complete,” Musk said on the October earnings call. “And it doesn’t mean like every scenario, everywhere on earth, including every corner case, it just means most of the time.”

There is ample evidence, however, that Tesla drivers routinely use existing features such as Autopilot without following the company’s guidelines for driver supervision. And the kind of scenarios Musk says FSD won’t be able to handle on release have already led to accidents of varying severity for users of other autonomous features.

Under these circumstances, the imminent release of FSD suggests at least the shadow of a conflict of interest, with Tesla’s bottom line and stock price in the balance against public safety.

The gold at the end of the self-driving rainbow

The half-billion dollars in deferred revenue from Full Self-Driving came from Tesla buyers who have pre-ordered the feature since 2016 for a surcharge of as much as $7,000. Customers who bought the feature got an onboard computer and all the hardware required for the car to drive itself—but without the software, which remains in development. When the software is declared complete, properly equipped Teslas will receive it via an over-the-air software update to those pre-installed hardware units. Tesla has not yet said whether it will roll it out to all drivers at once, or test it with smaller subsets.

Roughly half a billion dollars in presales would then be recognized as revenue, which Tesla said in June it would do over 12 months. A further portion of deferred FSD revenue, previously stated by the company as $316 million, would be recognized over the 8 year lifespan of each vehicle.

The $500 million referenced in October, spread evenly over the next four quarters, would add roughly $125 million per quarter to the bottom line. Though Tesla’s balance sheet shows big changes from quarter to quarter, some sense of the impact can be gained from looking at prior quarters. Adding $125 million in revenue to Q3 2019 results, for instance, would have increased operating profit by nearly 50%. Adding it to Q2 2019 would have cut operating losses by 74%. And because Tesla is considered a growth company, those changes could have an exaggerated impact on analyst’s projections of the company’s future growth.

“Feature complete” vs. completely functional

To be sure, Tesla has previously been aggressive about releasing features in semi-functional “beta” form, and the company is already warning that FSD will need further refinement after release.

On the October call, Musk specifically said FSD may not be prepared to deal with “corner cases” on release, making driver intervention necessary. These cases—better known as “edge cases”—include the truly unpredictable events common on mid-speed surface streets, from construction changing the flow of traffic, to large objects in the road, to pedestrians and cyclists.

“Edge cases” may have already misled existing Tesla autonomy features, such as the Autopilot feature for highways. One particular edge case, semi trucks turning across oncoming highway traffic, has allegedly contributed to two fatal accidents.

“Edge cases” are the main reason most manufacturers have slowed down the rollout of autonomous vehicles, leading expectations across the auto industry to slow sharply over the last year. Legacy carmakers like Ford and GM have moved away from any clear timeline for the retail sale of self-driving vehicles. Uber suspended its autonomous vehicle research last year after one of its vehicles killed a pedestrian. Waymo has released autonomous taxis, but only in one city, Phoenix, noted for its light traffic and good weather—that is, conditions where edge cases are at a minimum.

Tesla, by contrast, is aiming to release Full Self-Driving for owners worldwide, to potentially be used under a vast array of circumstances. But it is explicitly not guaranteeing that the technology will work under all circumstances on release.

Tesla’s language on that point may be misleading to the layperson. When Musk describes the coming FSD release as “feature-complete,” he’s referring to a list of discrete capabilities, including those already released—highway Autopilot, self-park, and, most recently, the parking lot feature Smart Summon. The additional features still needed to reach “feature complete” status primarily involve mid-speed city driving, such as recognizing stop signs and traffic lights. Musk described this part of the package in October as connecting the highway and parking lot features already released.

But ticking all those feature boxes—features which Tesla has defined for itself—is not the same as guaranteeing that Tesla owners can safely read the newspaper while their car takes them to the grocery store. In October, Musk said that “By feature complete I mean the car is able to drive from one’s house to work, most likely without intervention.”

That “most likely” caveat speaks volumes. As it has with Autopilot, Tesla will continue to officially require drivers to keep their hands on the wheel and monitor their vehicle to help the FSD system deal with unexpected edge cases.

This was foreshadowed in Tesla’s September 26 release of Smart Summon, a feature in the Full Self-Driving suite that’s designed to let a car pick up its driver in parking lots. The feature immediately ran into minor trouble, including some frightening and property-damaging mishaps documented on YouTube. The feature seemed particularly flummoxed by other cars and pedestrians. Consumer Reports described the feature as “glitchy” and “without a lot of obvious benefits for consumers.”

Yet Tesla added $30 million in self-driving revenue to its Q3 revenue on the basis of the Smart Summon release, making a small contribution to the company’s surprising third-quarter profit.

Failing before they succeed

Tesla leadership and supporters, though, have said that releasing software like Smart Summon with rough edges is part of the path to creating an autonomous vehicle that actually works. The most extreme expression of this mindset may have been Musk’s statements in 2016 that media highlighting the present-day risk of crashes involving self-driving technology would actually cost future lives:

“If, in writing some article that’s negative, you effectively dissuade people from using autonomous vehicles, you’re killing people,” the CEO said.

This stance is justified by the fact that, as with all forms of machine learning, autonomous driving algorithms depend on massive amounts of example data. Tesla’s aggressive approach, with all the risk it entails, has given the company a major edge in data gathering.

Teslas on the road today gather data about decisions made by their drivers, and test their autonomy systems in so-called “shadow mode”—recording the systems’ decisions for further review, without ever giving over control of the car. With a fleet of nearly 800,000 autopilot-equipped cars on the road, Tesla has recorded data from, by one analyst’s estimate, 1.8 billion miles of driving. Waymo has far more actual autonomous miles driven than Tesla or any other competitor, but Tesla appears to have more raw real-world data about driving conditions to work with.

With Full Self Driving actually available to owners, Tesla could quickly surpass Waymo’s tally of real-world autonomous miles driven, if it counts miles with a driver present but not intervening. Musk said in October that after its initial release, Full Self Driving would steadily improve to the point that “from a Tesla standpoint, we think the car is safe enough to be driven without supervision.” Presumably, those improvements will be partly enabled by additional data gathered with FSD active in the real world, though Tesla did not reply to clarifying questions on the topic.

Tesla has significant discretion both on technological and financial decisions related to Full Self-Driving. According to the nonprofit Center for Auto Safety, there are currently no federal performance standards or other regulations for advanced driver assistance technologies like FSD, or for fully-autonomous vehicles. So Tesla alone decides when FSD is ready for release. Tesla did not reply to inquiries from Fortune regarding its internal metrics for deciding when FSD will be safe for public use.

The decision of when to recognize held-back revenue is also made by Tesla, in collaboration with its accounting partners. This situation is not unique. “Lots of companies struggle with this very sticky question of what you can recognize as revenue.” says Joe Osha, a Tesla analyst with JMP Securities.

The key question, then, may be simply how much the public trusts Elon Musk and his company to decide when the technology is not a public safety risk, and to remove any financial considerations from that decision.

Jason K. Levine, Executive Director of the Center for Auto Safety, does not believe that trust is warranted. “Based on Tesla’s cavalier attitude up until now when it comes to quality control, the safety of their [systems], or educating consumers regarding the limitations of their technology,” he says, “There is nothing that should lead anyone to believe ‘entirely safe fully self-driving’ vehicle software is being released by Tesla anytime soon. All car manufacturers have a conflict of interest when it comes to putting safety before revenue. Most aren’t quite as publicly obvious about which one they are choosing as Tesla has been.”

Other observers believe Tesla has pure motives for the aggressive FSD timetable. “To be honest, that is less about the financials than it is just their desire to push the envelope in terms of the technology,” says Osha. “I agree with criticisms that they get out over their skis sometimes. But I don’t think that’s motivated by desire to move the gross margin. It’s their DNA.”

And despite cautious notes from Tesla itself, some who have experienced FSD in its current state are already impressed. Matt Joyce, a generally bullish independent Tesla analyst, got a sneak peek of Tesla’s autonomous city driving, and reports that it already works, though not flawlessly. “It was raw, but still super, super impressive. It literally went 15 minutes driving itself,” he said, through a variety of complex, real-world driving tasks on the streets of Fremont.

Even Joyce, though, isn’t confident Tesla will meet its nominal end-of-year target. “I think they are going to surprise people. It’s just not going to be on Elon’s timeline.”

Will Musk apply the brakes or speed ahead? With the end of 2019 rapidly approaching, investors and drivers alike are surely eager to find out.

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