How The Terror Attacks in Tehran Fuel an Already Perilous Middle East Crisis

ISIS has claimed responsibility for a pair of rare terrorist attacks in Iran’s capital Tehran, which some of the country’s most hard-line officials in turn blamed on the United States and Saudi Arabia. The dramatic incidents have added another layer of complexity on top of an already rapidly growing political crisis, centered on an attempt by the Saudis and their allies to isolate Qatar, which now involves the Russians and threatens to engulf the entire Middle East.

On June 7, 2017, at least seven terrorists conducted two simultaneous attacks on the seat of Iran’s parliament, known as the Majlis, and the tomb of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the father of the country’s Islamic Revolution. The complex operation involved small arms, suicide bombs, and possibly hostage taking. The nature of the attacks and their targets were highly symbolic.

At the country's parliament, four ISIS fighters, reportedly dressed as women, burst into an administrative building and began shooting, killing seven or eight individuals outright. Iranian state television said the Majlis was in session and another terrorist with a suicide vest made an attempt to get into the main hall before blowing themselves up, according to The Associated Press.

In total, the terrorists murdered 13 people. At the same time, additional fighters assault Khomeini's mausoleum, with one setting off their suicide bomb in the process. Government security forces shot and killed six of the attackers and arrested a seventh, who was actually a woman. They claimed to have thwarted a third attack entirely. Reactions from Iranian government officials were swift, focusing mainly on applauding the indomitable spirit of the country, its people, and the Islamic Revolution.

“These fireworks that happened today will have no impact on the people’s resolve,” the country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, said afterwards “They are too weak to affect the will of the Iranian nation and that of the officials.” “The Iranian nation…will prove once again that it will crush any plot or scheme by ill-wishers through unity and solidarity and its powerful security structure,” recently re-elected President Hassan Rouhani, seen as a moderate reformist in the context of Iranian politics, assured the nation.

Iranian security forces take cover during the June 2017 terrorist attacks in Tehran.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) had a very different take. In a statement, the powerful paramilitary entity, which is nominally part of the country’s armed forces and acts as the defender of the country’s unique political system, drew a direct line between the ISIS attack and U.S. President Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia in May 2017. Rather than refer to it by name, the IRGC only noted collusion between Trump and “the rulers of a regional reactionary regime.” Iran’s hardliners often do not name countries they see as hostile, preferring to use epithets, such as “Great Satan” for the United States and “Little Satan” for Israel.

Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, attends an IRGC graduation ceremony in 2014.

It’s worth noting that the idea of U.S.-Saudi-ISIS cabal is already a well established conspiracy theory. However, ISIS, a Sunni Islamic terrorist group, has a perfectly understandable grievance with predominantly Shia Iran over the country’s support for the regime of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad, which includes funding and providing various equipment for Syria’s own forces and various Shia militias, as well as Iraq’s majority Shia government. Since at least March 2017, ISIS has stepped up propaganda calling for attacks on Shi’ite Iranians and the state itself.

But this response is hardly surprising, given that Trump and Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud both pointedly criticized Iran during the state visit, slamming the country as a destabilizing force in the region and sponsoring terrorism – and there is significant evidence to support both claims. However, officials in Tehran see their counterparts in Riyadh as the true bad actors in the greater Middle East, funding extremists themselves – accusations that are also not easy to deny.

There is a long history of competition between the two countries and it has been increasingly, if not necessarily accurately, become framed in the context of a divide within the global Muslim community. Saudi Arabia is home to Islam’s two holiest sites and its monarchy effectively claims to be guardian of the faith worldwide, despite belonging to a relatively small branch of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism. As such, Riyadh is actively opposed to other brands of political Islam, even among fellow Sunnis, with particular anger reserved for the Egypt-centered Muslim Brotherhood.

On the other hand, Iran’s Islamic authorities see themselves as the center of a so-called “Shia Crescent,” despite again not necessarily speaking for all of Shi’ism and its own many sects and offshoots. Iranian state media routinely brands Sunni militant groups with the term takfiri. Though this formally refers to a Muslim who has accused another Muslim of apostasy – the act of renouncing one’s religion – it has taken on a derogatory definition as someone who wrongly claims to practice the only legitimate interpretation of the faith.

Then-Qatari Emir Sheik Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani meets with Ayatollah Khamenei in 2010.

As such, this latest rhetoric might not have even merited a mention had it not been for its place alongside an increasingly serious situation sweeping across the Middle East as a whole. Saudi Arabia touched off this political crisis when it decided to sever relations with Qatar. Despite being another Sunni Arab monarchy, the House of Saud has long seen the House of Thani as potentially dangerous outlier. Most galling to the Saudis, Qatar maintains relatively warm relations with Iran and offers neutral ground to operate in for even the most extreme Sunni political groups, such as Hamas and the Taliban.

Perhaps even worse for Saudi royals, the country has a vibrant and relatively free press, centered on the Al Jazeera television network, which routinely takes Arab rulers to task over poor human rights records and other abuses. The outlet has been particularly critical of the Saudi-led intervention into Yemen’s already brutal civil war, which was prompted by the rise of Houthi rebels with links to Iran. Saudi air strikes in particular have resulted in significant numbers of civilian deaths and there is evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity on all sides.

U.S. President Donald Trump meets with Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani in May 2017.

The matter came to a head in May 2017, after reports that Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani had criticized Trump and Salman’s attacks on Iran and called for increased Arab cooperation with the government in Tehran. This came straight from Qatari state media, which later claimed hackers had broken into its website and Twitter account and planted the fake news to stir up trouble. The plan apparently worked.

On June 5, 2017, Saudi Arabia, with what appeared to be tacit approval from the Trump Administration, cut off both diplomatic and physical links with the peninsular country. Officials in Riyadh accused the government in Doha of supporting terrorism and undermining regional governments, including its own. Trump subsequently Tweeted out what seemed to be an agreement with the Saudi position. Bahrain, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates quickly followed the Saudi lead. Jordan, the Maldives, Mauritania, Morocco, and Senegal all ultimately cut ties, downgraded relations, or put new economic restrictions in place.

As we already reported at The War Zone, this had the potential to throw Qatar, as well as its neighbors and allies into chaos. Tyler Rogoway wrote:

Saudi Arabia closed its common land border with Qatar—which is Qatar's only land border—as well as shuttering its sea and air borders with the country. The UAE and Bahrain have closed their air and sea borders with neighboring Qatar as well, and far away, Egypt closed its airspace to aircraft belonging to the peninsular nation. As a result, Qatar has lost a whopping 82% of its gulf imports as a result of the punishing measures, and the country relies heavily on these imports to survive, especially those that come through Saudi Arabia. The various players involved have also recalled their citizens from Qatar, some on very tight timelines, and have kicked Qatari nationals out of their own territories.

And the situation has only become more complex and convoluted since then. While there was no claim or responsibility or other confirmation of the cyber attack on Qatar’s state broadcaster, on June 7, 2017, CNN reported that United States law enforcement officials had come to believe not only that the hack was realm but that the intruders were Russian. As it has done after other similar accusations, the Kremlin staunchly denied any involvement. Still, Russia has been looking to gain new influence in the Middle East and North Africa, beyond long-standing partner Syria. It has made inroads with Egypt and is cultivating ties with Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar.

At the same time, in spite of early attempts at a diplomatic resolution, with Kuwait trying to intervene and calm the situation, Saudi Arabia has only escalated their rhetoric with a set of 10 demands to be met within 24 hours. These included cutting all relations with Iran, expelling Hamas – a Palestinian offshoot of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood – from the country and seizing its assets, as well as deporting other Muslim Brotherhood representatives and other unspecified elements hostile to the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council political and economic bloc. The Hamas-specific requirements may also be linked in part to warming relations between the Saudis and Israel, who both see a common enemy in Iran.

Riyadh wants Doha to stop supporting terrorists groups and “interfering” in Egypt, too. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el Sisi took power in a coup during which the military overthrew an elected Muslim Brotherhood government. Oh, and the Saudis need a state-level apology for Al Jazeera’s “abuses” and a promise to shut down the network for good.

Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah, left, with Saudi Arabia's King Salman during talks in June 2017.

All of this could only be humiliating for the Qatari regime and it is unlikely to comply. What happens if it doesn’t, though, is unclear. As these new developments were appearing, Turkey announced it had authorized the deployment of troops to a new overseas base in Qatar. Though the risk of an outright conflict is low and the two countries had reportedly first started discussing this plan in January 2017, the rush to complete the deal can only be seen as a product of the existing political crisis. Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party, an Islamist political party better known by its Turkish acronym AKP, is widely seen as the country’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. It has spoken out in support of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood in the past.

The United States, which might otherwise be a key peacemaker, is in a complicated situation. President Trump himself has already publicly sided with Saudi outrage over what may have been false statements. At home, Trump is facing a steady barrage of criticism over his handling of investigations into Russia’s attempts to undermine the American electoral process, which he insists is “fake news.” But the vast majority of the parties directly or tangentially involved in the crisis – with the obvious exceptions of Russia, Iran and Hamas – are traditional U.S. allies. Qatar happens to host the largest American military base in the region, which has been essential in the U.S.-led fight against ISIS.

U.S. President Donald Trump at center, along with Saudi Arabia's King Salman, second from the left, in May 2017.

On the other hand, no one in the U.S. government would want to be perceived as being soft on Iran or terrorism, especially as American officials look to enact new sanctions on Tehran over its ballistic missile programs. The Pentagon has become increasingly in danger of getting into a more significant fight with Iranian-backed militia in southern Syria as it attempts to focus on battling ISIS, too. All this in turn could push Iran’s more moderate elected authorities to side with hardliners to more actively support Qatar, potentially driving a wedge deep between it and its historic American benefactors.

In spite of these political realities, the U.S. State Department did take a smart, apolitical line in response to the Tehran terrorist attacks. “We express our condolences to the victims and their families, and send our thoughts and prayers to the people of Iran,” Heather Nauert, the Department’s top spokesperson, said in a statement. “The depravity of terrorism has no place in a peaceful, civilized world.”

Unfortunately, if it becomes any more difficult for the parties to reign in their rhetoric and defuse the situation, platitudes like this may not be enough to prevent the crisis from boiling over into something far worse.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com

This Bugatti Chiron’s Hill Climb is Pure Turbo Spool

What do you imagine something with sixteen cylinders would sound like ripping around a track? Probably fantastic. But now, take that same sound and add not two but four turbochargers to the mix. I bet it’s beginning to sound a lot like music to your ears.

After Bugatti dethroned the Veyron as the king of its luxury offerings, it birthed the Chiron. Offering 300 extra ponies over the Veyron while still retaining a similar powerplant configuration, the huge 16-cylinder engine makes a whopping 1500 horsepower and 1180 lb-ft of torque. No surprise of those numbers, considering Bugatti’s history of pumping out high-output production cars.

The turbos on the Chiron are very, very loud. Coupled with the roar that only the 8-liters of displacement can create and the exhaust note of Volkswagen’s beloved “W” configuration, this Bugatti is a car lover’s dream. One of the most interesting feats that Bugatti managed to accomplish with the Chiron is the nearly lag-less turbocharging system. This was achieved by implementing a dual-stage forced induction platform where two pairs of turbochargers are used. Only two turbos are used before 3,800 RPM. Once the Chiron’s motor spins above that number, a valve opens in the exhaust manifold and allows exhaust gasses to spin the two remaining snails. The result is a flat torque curve between 2,000 and its redline of 6,800 RPM. Make no mistake, this car is properly quick.

But enough talk – let’s listen. Watch the video below to see the Chiron attack a hill and make all sorts of loud, crazy noises.

AAA Study Confirms Synthetic Oil is Better Than the Conventional Stuff

The age old question on every car forum on the Internet: Which oil is best oil? Opinions range to every product of every brand of motor oil, but one thing most gearheads agree on is that synthetic is the way to go. AAA, a more reputable source than turboguy71 on your favorite car forum, just came out with a new study confirming that theory.

It’s understandable why people—especially non-car people—are skeptical of synthetic oil. It’s easy to see it as an upsell for a product with a fancier label and lofty claims about extended life and improved performance. But, synthetic oil is far from just being snake oil. Here’s what the AAA found in their study.

“Oil protects critical engine components from damage and AAA found that synthetic engine oils performed an average of 47 percent better than conventional oils in a variety of industry-standard tests,” said John Nielsen, AAA’s managing director of Automotive Engineering and Repair. “With its superior resistance to deterioration, AAA’s findings indicate that synthetic oil is particularly beneficial to newer vehicles with turbocharged engines and for vehicles that frequently drive in stop-and-go traffic, tow heavy loads or operate in extreme hot or cold conditions.”

With turbocharging becoming more popular all the time in modern cars (see Ford EcoBoost) it makes more sense to use synthetic oil even if you don’t demand peak performance in harsh conditions. Synthetic oil isn’t just for racing or performance cars, it has a lot of benefits in regular, everyday driving.

Finally, it confirms a favorite line of synthetic oil evangelists everywhere - that the extra upfront cost of synthetic can save you money in the long run by being that much better for your engine. Incidentally, I’d like to know where AAA is buying their oil. You can easily get a 5-quart jug of Mobil 1 or Castrol Edge for under $30. In any case, it’s very much worth the extra cost.

If you’ve been cheaping out on conventional oil you can certainly keep doing that and it won’t hurt anything as long as you stick to the recommended service intervals. However, if you’ve been thinking about making the synthetic switch for better performance and longer engine life, here’s some nerd stuff like charts, graphs, and extensive data that might convince you to pull the trigger.

Dodge Viper ACR Heading Back to the Nurburgring for a New Record Attempt in July

The Dodge Viper ACR is heading to the Nurburgring in an attempt to nail down a 'Ring record once again.

Over the course of four months, a Gofundme page organized by Russ Oasis has surpassed its goal of raising $159,000 to transport a Viper ACR to the Nurburgring for record-setting purposes. According to the fundraiser page, two Viper ACR Extremes are being provided by ViperExchange. The twin Dodge speed machines will be driven by two drivers, Dominik Farnbacher and Luca Stolz, who are both incredibly familiar with the 12.9-mile Nordschleife; Farnbacher set the Dodge Viper's record the last tim it ran the 'Ring, while Stoltz secured pole position at last year's Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup behind the wheel of a Lamborghini.

According to the Gofundme account, the $159,000 required funds cover shipping the Vipers, the track time, and other supplies and general expenses that might come up. All of the personnel involved. however, are volunteering simply to be a part of the endeavor.

"Our beloved Viper has set 13 track records in the U.S. Let’s go back to Nurburgring and re-take the ultimate international crown as we sail into the sunset," the Gofundme reads.

In 2011, the Viper ACR nailed the production-car record when Farnbacher managed a 7:12.13-minute lap around the Nordschleife. But if the Viper is to once again shatter the record board, these guys are going to have to go hard; since then, Porsche, Lamborghini, Nio, and McLaren have all moved the goalposts for Nurburgring runs. The current holder of the official production car lap record remains something of a question, as the Nio EP9 and Mclaren P1 LM's street-legality is arguable—but the Viper ACR will need to at least outdo the Lamborghini Huracan Performante's 6:52 lap time.

According to a Facebook post, the lap attempts will happen in July. We can't wait to see what happens.

New Zealand ‘Vigilante’ Crashes Into Car After Catching It Doing Donuts

A New Zealand man was ordered to stop driving by a judge Tuesday after he crashed his vehicle into another car that was doing donuts, according to Stuff.co.nz.

Peter James Clement, 40, was in his home one evening when he heard a car screeching its tires outside, according to a police report. The report also said that the car could be seen sliding around a turn near the house, causing the driver of the car to almost lose control. After witnessing this, Clement took off and tried to find the car, according to Stuff.co.nz.

When Clement found the car, he noticed it had just completed a series of donuts in a gravel area near a race track, according to the report. As the car began to drive away, Clement drove his car into the left side of the hooning vehicle. After he managed to get behind the donut-doer, the car braked in front of him, leading Clement to run into its rear end.

After the four people inside the car exited the vehicle, the driver of the hooning car grabbed Clement by his clothes, according to the police report. After a brief talk, the driver let Clement go—but as he left, one of the passengers in the car threw a "large" rock at him, cutting his face, according to Stuff.co.nz.

Clement took the matter to police and explained that he knew he shouldn't have tried to dealt with the situation himself, "however he was sick of people driving like idiots and causing havoc in the community and he wanted to stop the vehicle and tell them it wasn't OK," the police report said, according to Stuff.co.nz.

According to Clement's lawyer, Bill Dawkins, the 40-year-old was previously the first on the scene of a fatal accident in September 2016. In this case with the driver doing donuts, he was trying to stop "them harming themselves," the lawyer explained, according to Stuff.co.nz. "It wasn't his intention to collide with the other vehicle," Dawkins said.

Judge John Brandts-Giesen at the Invercargill District Court explained to Clement that trying to diffuse situations like he attempted to do here is not smart.

"Being an angry vigilante is a recipe for disaster," Brandts-Giesen said, according to Stuff.co.nz.

Clement was required to shell out $1,200 (converted from $1,800 New Zealand) and has had his license suspended for six months.

When Stanford Roboticists Review Tesla Autopilot, They Don’t Send Their Best

The usual storm of clickbait was pierced by a lightning bolt of ignorance this week, when a Stanford roboticist demonstrated a shocking level of misunderstanding of both Tesla Autopilot and the nomenclature around autonomous cars.

Heather Knight, who works at Stanford’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, claims her research is “half social robots, half autonomous driving.” Based on her May 27th post in Medium, “Tesla Autopilot Review: Bikers will die”, she’s contributing to the very problem one would hope she’s trying to solve.

Degrees don’t bestow wisdom, nor an understanding of the tragically power of titles in a world of TL:DR.

Dear Stanford: if Journalism 101 isn’t a PhD requirement, make it one. Also, please discourage clickbait.

The foolish clickbait in question.

You don’t need to be a Stanford brainiac to know that a headline like “Bikers will die” will become the story. Incredibly, Knight actually claimed to like Tesla Autopilot in a comment posted 48 hours after initial publication, but the damage had been done. Whatever analysis of human-machine interfacing (HMI) she hoped to share was buried as the story was widely reposted.

Beyond the title, Knight’s amateurish post has so many errors and omissions it has to be deconstructed line-by-line to comprehend its naïveté. Let’s begin:

"My colleague and I got to take a TESLA Autopilot test drive on highways, curvy California roads, and by the ocean."

Knight would seem to be off to a good start. California’s highways are the ideal place to use Tesla Autopilot. Curvy roads? Not so much. Does Knight read the news? My 74-year-old mother knows not to “test” Autopilot anywhere but on a highway or in traffic.

Then Knight commits credibility suicide.

"In case you don’t live in Palo Alto (where the Whole Foods parking lot is full of these things)… the TESLA Autopilot feature is basically a button to turn the car into autonomous driving mode."

Wrong. Knight has a PhD in this autonomous driving? There is not one fully autonomous car on the market today, and—let us all be perfectly clear—Tesla Autopilot is not an “Autonomous Driving Mode.” Say it again: Tesla Autopilot is not an “Autonomous Driving Mode.”

Surely Knight knows this. If she doesn’t, the Stanford PhD program has a major problem.

Tesla Autopilot is currently a semi-autonomous system. According to the commonly accepted SAE standard, Tesla Autopilot is a Level 2 system, which at its best paints a picture of what Level 3 might look like, someday. Tesla never claimed that Autopilot in its current form is a Level 4 technology, which is what fully “autonomous driving” is. If Knight wanted to dissect potential misunderstandings of Tesla’s use of the word Autopilot, here’s a breakdown of traditional definitions. I know a lot of brilliant people at Stanford with a lot to say about this. Knight is not one of them.

"So the car will speed up or slow down based on what’s in front of it, and supposedly stay in the lane or follow the turns of a road automatically."

Just to clarify terms Knight doesn’t, the first thing she refers to is what Tesla calls Traffic-Aware Cruise Control (TACC), which can be engaged independent of Autopilot, which is the umbrella term for what happens when a user also engages Lane Keeping Assistance (LKAS), which Tesla calls Autosteer.

A Level 2 or 3 semi-autonomous system requires that the user be prepared to take over anytime. To say that Autosteer will “supposedly” stay in the lane or follow the turns of a road automatically is like saying traction control or anti-lock brakes will “supposedly” maintain traction or stop in the shortest possible distance.

Can they? Yes, in ideal conditions. But technology is only as good as the user’s understanding of it. When your life depends on something, it’s important to call things what they are, and to do a minimal amount of research before taking unnecessary risks.

How many people have been killed because traction control didn’t guarantee traction? Or anti-lock brakes couldn’t prevent an impact? Whatever the number, a lighter foot on the gas, better drivers education, and some common sense would have reduced that number.

Can Autopilot stay in lane? Yes, in ideal conditions. What about “follow the turns of a road” automatically? Yes, in ideal conditions, which are highways with gentle turns, or in traffic, all of which is clearly stated in Tesla’s manual. Did she not read it? It’s actually built into the car, right into the enormous display in the center of the dashboard.

Until Level 4 arrives, the driver is totally responsible, and Tesla’s hands off warnings are explicit: this is a hands-on system—just like Mercedes' Drive Pilot and Volvo's Pilot Assist. It may not have appeared to be in the beginning, but it sure is now. That it works well enough for early users to exploit the system’s perceived strengths is a problem, but it is the user’s problem, and a problem solved though experience and habit.

I’m not a roboticist with a PhD, but it took me less than an hour.

Fail to heed Autopilot’s warnings three times, and the system will not re-engage until the vehicle has stopped and been put into Park. Surely Knight must have encountered these warnings, and yet her post doesn’t reference any of the common nomenclature around basic human-machine interfaces (HMI) which Autopilot so clearly highlights.

You know, terms like hands-off intervals, transitions and mode confusion.

Given that Autopilot IS NOT AN AUTONOMOUS DRIVING SYSTEM, calling it autonomous in the first paragraph and reviewing it as such is deeply irresponsible, if not foolish. For an academic in the field, it’s outrageous.

The purpose of this post is to share my first impressions of this system, particularly regarding its human-machine interfacing. I’m concerned that some will ignore its limitations and put biker lives at risk; we found the Autopilot’s agonistic behavior around bicyclists to be frightening. But as a human-in-the-loop system, this car’s features would impress Iron Man.

A level 4 self-driving car doesn’t have limitations; it's binary. It’s either self-driving, or it isn’t. If Tesla Autopilot was Level 4, then its behavior around bikers is demonstrably poor, but it isn't Level 4, it's Level 2, and as such we can agree that Tesla’s is the best on the market.

The only reason someone would mistake Autopilot for Level 4 is because of idiotic statements describing it as an “autonomous driving mode”, which come from people like Knight, and not from Tesla.

Quick background: Dylan Moore and I work for Dr. Wendy Ju’s research group at Stanford University’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. The group sometimes dubs itself “transformers,” because our research is half social robots, half autonomous driving. We often find that insights in one domain cross apply to the other. Long story short, Dylan and I are familiar with the shortcomings of robot perception systems, and care about interface design.

Yadda, qualifications, yadda.

Since it’s our field, Wendy Ju had us rent a TESLA, that way our group could experience the closest thing out there to consumer autonomous driving today. Naturally, we took it to the beach. For research. I share Dylan and my report card for its features below.

Yadda, context, yadda.

Engineering Sexiness Report

B [DOOR HANDLES THAT RECEDE INTO THE FRAME] — super sexy, but watch your fingers! the car detects the proximity of the keys and automatically locks as you walk away. it does miss some of the satisfaction of actively locking a car, because it is not initiated by you, and there is no auditory confirmation that it is locking. (note: system will not actually damage fingers)

If you don’t like the retracting door handles and automatic locking features, both can be disabled. If you like them, they deserve an A. If you don’t, Tesla deserves an A for making them optional. Boom. The advantage of software-driven design.

A+ [AUTOMATIC LANE SWITCHING] — love it: intuitive, reliable, super cool! switch your left-turn blinker on on the highway and the car will wait for an opening and automatically switch lanes. works great and makes sense to user.

Sorry, but Knight is dead wrong. Knight tested a Hardware 1 Model S, whose side and rear facing sensors are short range ultrasonics with insufficient range to detect a fast moving vehicle approaching from the rear. Tesla Autopilot may be the best Level 2 system on the market, but no one — not even the latest Mercedes E-Class with its rear-facing radar — has resolved this problem to anyone’s satisfaction, including hardcore Tesla fans.

I love Autopilot, but this system deserves no better than a B, because even when it works well, the driver cannot rely solely on the car’s sensors. To Tesla’s credit, I would give most rivals’ systems no more than a C.

Do the latest Hardware 2 Teslas do better? I don’t know. And neither does Knight.

B [CURVES] — the car turns too late to cue human trust. hard to know if it would have worked, we didn’t want to risk it. my phD thesis was about Expressive Motion, so I have ideas of how TESLA could improve people’s trust, but depending on how reliable the car actually is, that might not be a good thing. (see mental model discussion below)

What does “the car turns too late to cue human trust” actually mean? Used in the right conditions, Autosteer is light years ahead of any rival system I’ve tested. It works stunningly well on California’s 101 at speeds as high as 90 mph. Curvy roads, as in the ones that are most fun under human control? It disengages, as it should when it reaches its limits. Experience will teach any user when and where it works best. Where was Knight using it? On the very curvy roads where the Tesla manual warns against engagement?

Foolish.

Bizarrely, although she claims further down to love Tesla’s Situational Awareness Display, she makes no mention of it in the context of LKAS/Autosteer and the curvy roads where she took issue with trust. Every Tesla clearly displays whether or not Autopilot recognizes one or both lane markings and/or car(s) ahead, which is how it determines its forward path. Even though Autosteer can be engaged when it sees only one lane line, or no lane lines and a car ahead, common sense dictates that one not trust it to remain engaged when it is relying on the lowest possible level of sensor input.

Especially on a curvy road.

Trust? I don’t trust Knight’s experience as a driver (or as an Autopilot user) to analyze any of this.

C [USER-SET TARGET VELOCITY] — dangerous: autopilot seeks to achieve the cruise-control set speed as long as there is not an obstacle. this works fine on the a consistent street like a highway, but we discovered the hard way when we exited the highway onto a country road, switched autopilot on, and it tried to go from 30 to 65 mph at maximum acceleration. expert users would be familiar with this, but we think tesla can do better.

Dangerous? Sounds like Knight is dangerous.

You don’t need Autopilot to know what a safe speed is when exiting a highway onto a country road. It isn’t your highway speed, nor does Tesla claim Autopilot will determine it for you. This calls for experience, both in driving and in using Tesla’s superlative TACC to adjust speed without having to use the brakes.

Or maybe the common sense to slow down before exiting, like a human would.

I’ve driven on Autopilot from Palo Alto to Santa Monica barely touching the brakes, modulating speed solely with the TACC stalk. How did I know what the safe speed was? Decades of human driving.

Dear Dr. Knight: go to professional driving school, then read Tesla’s manual, then try again.

Would I give Tesla’s TACC an A? No. It has two issues Knight doesn’t raise, which shows how little time she spent using it: 1) TACC’s shortest lead-follow setting is approximately one car length, which I think is too short, and 2) if TACC is set at 75 mph, and a car in front slows to 55, and one engages the automatic lane change feature, your Tesla may unexpectedly deploy its prodigious power to surge forward into the passing lane the instant the cone of its forward facing radar clears the rear bumper of the slower car.

It happened to me once, after which I learned to pay attention.

Such power is a Tesla feature, courtesy of an EV manufacturer that “doesn’t make slow cars.” I would suggest a software update that slows acceleration when TACC is engaged. Luckily, Tesla can do this over the air. I think it’s inevitable they will.

I give it an A-.

A+ [SITUATION AWARENESS DISPLAY] — this display helps the human drivers have a mental model of what the car sees. I’d estimate that Autopilot classified ~30% of other cars, and 1% of bicyclists. Not being able to classify objects doesn’t mean the tesla doesn’t see that something is there, but given the lives at stake, we recommend that people NEVER USE TESLA AUTOPILOT AROUND BICYCLISTS! this grade is not for the detection system, it’s for exposing the car’s limitations. a feature telling the human to take over is incredibly important.

I totally agree. Tesla’s Situational Awareness display is amazing. No one else’s comes close. The 2017 Mercedes E-Class display is literally junk.

But WTF is Knight talking about when she says it only classifies 30% of cars and 1% of bicyclists? Does she even understand what type of sensor hardware Autopilot uses? In my experience the forward facing radar sees 99.9% of the vehicles in its field of view.

Knowing it’s field of view is a different story, and is the driver’s responsibility.

What is Knight suggesting? That it doesn’t see 70% of vehicles? Or that it doesn’t “classify” them? They are cars, or they are trucks. Sometimes one appears like the other, which is irrelevant to Autopilot and the user. If it’s a vehicle, DON’T HIT IT.

Knight’s statement is confusing and bizarre.

Ironically, she doesn’t mention motorcycles, which the radar doesn’t spot as reliably as cars and trucks. Why? Because radar waves reflect off of metal, and motorcycles have a smaller radar cross section than cars or trucks, which is why the human-in-the-loop, aware of Autopilot’s limitations through experience and reading the manual, knows to be cautious around motorcycles.

Just like smart drivers for the last 100 years.

Which brings us to bicyclists. Radar doesn’t really see them very well. Guess what? Bicycles aren’t legal on interstates and highways, and you shouldn’t be using Autopilot on roads where bikes are common.

This is a Level 2 semi-autonomous system. Read the manual. Use common sense.

C [GIANT TOUCHSCREEN] — hire UX designers, tesla!! yes, it’s a big screen. now make it intuitive to find things… it took us 5 screens to turn off the car. From a usability perspective this is a system for experts not novices. (note: car automatically turns off as you walk away with keys, but we wanted the confirmation as new users and found the menu depth suboptimal)

I love a good set of knobs, but no one has done knobs correctly in decades. OK, maybe Mazda has. Seriously, Knight needed 5 screens to turn off the car? The menus are imperfect, but again, light years ahead anything from the Germans. LIGHT YEARS. New Tesla owners get a walkthrough from a specialist that shames every luxury dealership I’ve ever been through. Knight didn’t, and seemed to learn it quickly.

Problem solved.

I’d prefer the Tesla display plus knobs, but in the absence of knobs, theirs is the best iteration I’ve seen. I like Volvo’s latest as well, but giving Tesla less than an A- suggests how few modern cars Knight has studied.

F [SELF-LOCKING FEATURE] — we stepped out of the car to take a photo, leaving the keys in the car, and this super capable intelligent car locked us out! FIX THIS BUG! engineers should account for how people will actually use a technology. the receding door handles made this action seem particularly petulant.

This annoyed me once. Then I disabled the feature. An F? Please. It’s a feature, not a bug. Install the Tesla app on your phone like every other owner, and unlock your car, which brings us to...

A+ [TESLA APP] — terrifying but awesome: our lab mate unlocked the tesla from 30 miles away, as he had ridden the car the day before. beware of a future where you can’t use your car without cell-phone service!

Wow. Those Tesla folks really are smart. Too bad Knight didn’t think about what happens if you don’t have cell service. Oh wait. She did, and later added a link to her post about that actually happening, which is why the app doesn’t deserve an A+, and the self-locking feature needs to be changed.

Our Favorite TESLA Features

Drumroll please…

Winner: The Situation Awareness Display is great because it helps the driver understand shortcomings of the car, i.e., its perception sucks. Providing the driver an accurate mental model of the system probably saves lives, and robots in general would benefit from communicating their limitations to people.

Tesla’s perception sucks? Surely it’s insufficient for Level 4, but for Level 2 it’s excellent, and as an aid to human driving it’s extraordinary. Once you’ve passed a truck at high speed with it at night, you’ll wonder why Tesla’s Situational Awareness Display isn’t mandated on all human driven cars.

Of course providing accurate mental models will save lives, but Tesla’s is the clearest display there is, and its perception levels are irrelevant to the human user who understands them, and engages Autopilot accordingly.

Woe to the user who doesn’t get past Knight’s first paragraph, and thinks this is a Level 4 system.

Runner up: The TESLA App saved our butts when we were locked out of the car and Mishel rescued us from the Stanford campus. There could have been worse places to be stuck than by the ocean in Half Moon Bay but we encourage TESLA to fix the self-locking feature.

Agree with her there. Good thing Tesla offers those wireless updates. Does anyone else? Bueller? Bueller?

So in conclusion, and despite the marketing, do not treat this system as a prime time autonomous car. If you forget that… bikers will die.

And so a really poor Medium post went viral.

If Knight had only omitted that last line, her post might have made for some good debate. Pending more research, she would seem to have some interesting things to say about mental models, but that’s not what happened. Instead of adding to the debate over Autopilot, Knight contributed to the confusion.

What's so insane is that the biker aspect of her post is so secondary, only the desire for traffic could have motivated her choice of title.

Here’s a real debate worth having: as much as I like Autopilot, I’ve argued that no matter how good semi-autonomy gets, it can never be as safe as augmentation systems. Does Knight know the difference? Given her degree, she should.

I suggest she and everyone else interested in advancing the art of HMI study Airbus flight envelope protections, and go take some flying lessons. Sully has a lot to say about this. Our ivory towers are full of people lacking in real world experience. Ironically, a little knowledge really is a dangerous thing. Not to bikers, but to anyone who trusts that a PhD in robotics know anything about driving, or what “safety” can and should be.

I can’t wait to see her full review of Tesla Autopilot. Actually, I can.

Alex Roy is Editor-at-Large for The Drive, author of The Driver, and set the 2007 Transcontinental “Cannonball Run” Record in 31 hours & 4 minutes. You may follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Porsche Relocating 1.5 Million Bees to Leipzig Factory Grounds

Porsche recently relocated 1.5 million endangered honey bees to an undeveloped patch of land at their Leipzig factory. If you haven’t heard, bee populations are in trouble around the world. And though they may occasionally sting us, we really need them to do their whole pollination thing; bees are beyond vital keeping most things alive on our planet.

The conundrum for the automotive enthusiast (which, if you are reading this at The Drive, most likely includes you) is that our beloved car is not exactly environmentally friendly. Even with electric cars, hybrids, alternative fuels, new emissions-scrubbing technologies, and everything “green” you can throw at a vehicle, your car is a rolling EPA Superfund site. If we want to continue to have nice things, we need to make sure we are doing what we can to help clean up the world. Which is what Porsche is doing with a frightening amount of bees.

According to a press release, Porsche giving a new home to 25 colonies of bees in off-road area of their Leipzig factory property. Porsche has used the land as a conservation area since they acquired it in 2000. The former military site has been completely transformed back to it’s natural state, and is home to many types of critters including birds, frogs, bats, insects, rabbits, wild horses, and 75 aurochs.

The bees can now do all their bee things without disturbing too many people. Plus, Porsche is going to harvest their honey, which will be used for “employee catering” at the Leipzig plant. If my German translation is correct, “employee catering” is a nice way of saying cafeteria. Though, this being Porsche, it’s probably the nicest lunch room you’ll ever see. Customers visiting the Leipzig plant may also get a chance to buy some Porsche honey later this year.

I can’t even imagine what Porsche honey would cost. Given that you can buy 100 Porsche 911-shaped paper clips for $20 versus 5000 regular paperclips for $17 on Amazon, I would guess the honey isn’t going to be cheap. But I bet it’ll be some of the best honey you’ll ever have.

Included in the press release was this great info-graphic about the Porsche bees.

You also might be asking “What exactly is an auroch?” Answer: it’s an extinct cattle that apparently Porsche (or someone) brought back to life. (No really, it was extinct.) Porsche is doing their part to be good environmental stewards, as should we all. So get out there, recycle some stuff, save a bee, and let some extinct mammal roam around in your backyard.

Listen to the 2018 BMW M8 Roar at the Nurburgring

After years of rumors floating around that the company was planning a new 8 Series model, BMW has confirmed them in recent days with record enthusiasm. In the span of less than a month, the Bavarian Motor Works announced a new range-topping coupe was headed for production next year, previewed said car with the gorgeous Concept 8 Series at Villa d'Este, and announced that the new 8 Series range would also include a 2018 BMW M8...by bringing a camouflaged (but apparently near-production-ready) version of it to the 24 Hours Nurburgring race last weekend.

As the 24 Hours of Nurburgring is a rather well-attended motorsports event, the new BMW M8 didn't exactly go unnoticed at its global debut. (Not that BMW expected to, mind you.) So when the company started up the camouflaged two-door for the first time in the public sphere, a veritable gaggle of gearheads with smartphones were gathered around to see—and, as it turns out, hear—the car in real life.

Included among them: veteran YouTube car spotter cvdzijden, who was front and center for the super-coupe's grand entrance from behind a banner bearing the catchphrase "TOO MANY SECRETS." Not only did his camera capture the car from the front, side, and rear of the vehicle, but the microphone also grabbed the snarling exhaust note pouring out of the engine—reportedly, the same 600-horsepower twin-turbo V-8 unit found in the forthcoming BMW M5. He even caught a good glimpse of the car blasting onto the 'Ring itself with a couple M3 Ring Taxis...an accelerative burst that left us even more excited to drive this big Bimmer than we were before.

Volvo’s First China-Built S90 to be Transported on High-Tech Rail Link

Volvo Cars announced that it will start shipping Volvos made in China to Belgium via China's efficient rail link. This train system establishes a direct and faster trade route between China and Europe, helping China improve its image as a premium manufacturing center at scale. Volvo clearly understands China's potential, having already started manufacturing some of its cars there. (Plus, Volvo is currently owned by Geely, a Chinese auto manufacturer.) The Swedish premium manufacturer first started exporting cars from China to America two years ago with the S60 Inscription, and plans to revive that program with the brand-new S90. This development is another massive step for Volvo in its efforts to take advantage of certain countries' huge manufacturing potentials as it leads the way in global automotive expansion for premium vehicles.

The S90 sedan manufactured at the Daqing factory will be the first Volvo to make the journey to the Zeebrugge, Belgium facility for distribution. Volvo plans to transport the first group of cars this week, and will initially send a new batch of cars along the route once a week. Up to 120 cars can be transported on the train in containers made specifically for Volvos.

There are a number of benefits to transporting via rail over shipping automobiles over the sea. Along with cheaper fuel costs, Volvo says that China's rail line is more environmentally friendly than ships. It is also 75 percent faster to transport a car to Belgium on a train than on a boat, so customers get their cars sooner.

South China Sea Underwater “Environmental” Sensor Net Could Track U.S. Subs

The Chinese government has approved plans for a massive undersea surveillance network in both the East and South China Seas. Officially intended to primarily monitor environmental changes, state officials acknowledge the systems will have “national defense” applications, which could include tracking the movements of foreign submarines.

The plan includes a number of unspecified sensors on the ocean floor, connected via optical cables to a central processing and monitoring facility in Shanghai. The devices will be able to provide “real-time, high-definition, multiple interface, and three-dimensional observations,” according to state-run outlet CCTV.

“China is an ocean power; it should have done more in oceanic studies in the past,” Jian Zhimin, dean of the School of Marine and Earth Sciences at Tongji University in Shanghai, told CCTV. “An ocean power must be able to go to the high seas and go global.”

Ostensibly, the network forms a “laboratory” in which researchers can study climate change and maritime phenomena, Jian added. Additional reports suggested that this equipment would be calibrated to gather chemical, biological, and geological data. But the national security implications are hard to miss.

A prototype of one of the sensors for China's new monitoring underea system.

The underwater system could be useful for “other sectors, such as mining, mapping or ocean rights protection, and national defense in addition to scientific research,” Zhou Huaiyang, a professor in Tongji’s School of Marine and Earth Sciences, explained to CCTV. “We hope different governmental departments can work together to work out stricter regulations and measures on the protection of these undersea facilities, so as to ensure the long-term operation of this system.”

It is possible that Zhou’s reference to “national defense” referred to the preservation, exploration, and exploitation of natural resources for China’s benefit. The East and South China Seas may contain untapped reserves of oil, natural gas, and valuable minerals, as well as just being important sources of fish and other edible marine animals.

An artist's conception of the undersea network.

However, it seems much more likely the network’s defensive function would have to do with monitoring foreign military movements, especially of submarines. Earlier in May 2017, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly reported that the state-owned China State Shipbuilding Corporation had presented details of a massive “Underwater Great Wall Project” for the People’s Army Liberation Navy (PLAN) during a public exhibition the previous year. That proposal sounds extremely similar to the one CCTV announced in size and scope if not necessarily stated function.

During the Cold War, the United States maintained a similar system to guard itself against Soviet submarines, known as the Sound Surveillance System, or SOSUS, which employed groups of ultra-sensitive hydrophone listening devices along the seabed . As a result of espionage, the U.S. Navy was ultimately forces to employ a combination of fixed sensor arrays, surface ships towing sonar, and processing stations ashore, known as the Integrated Undersea Surveillance System (IUSS). But even decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, elements of the system remain in use or available in a crisis.

A model of the undersea network.

A similar Chinese system in the East and south China Seas would be essential for Beijing to enforce its claim to almost in their entirety of both bodies of water. Nearly every one of the country’s neighbors, as well as major international maritime nations, disputes China’s dominion over these regions. Many, such as the United States, actively challenge the country’s position by sailing through or flying over the area.

By 2015, “China demonstrated a willingness to tolerate higher levels of tension in the pursuit of its interests, especially in pursuit of its territorial claims in the East and South China Sea; however, China still seeks to avoid direct and explicit conflict with the United States,” the Pentagon noted in an annual public report to Congress on Chinese military developments. “In the near-term, China is using coercive tactics short of armed conflict, such as the use of law enforcement vessels to enforce maritime claims, to advance their interests in ways that are calculated to fall below the threshold of provoking conflict.”

A map of Chinese and foreign outposts in the South China Sea.

Most visibly, since 2014, the Chinese government has been actively turning at least eight previously uninhabitable reefs and shoals into man-made islands able to support military outposts. The operations at locations such as Fiery Cross, Mischief and Subi Reefs in the South China Sea have airstrips able to support fighter jets and heavier aircraft, apparent radars and launch sites that could accommodate surface-to-air and anti-ship missiles for local defense, and other facilities. In March 2017, the Center for Strategic and International Studies said that commercial satellite imagery suggested these military sites were close to fully operational. The Washington, D.C. think tank created an interactive map to go along with their report, showing Chinese aircraft, missiles, and radars provide extensive coverage throughout the South China Sea.

For China, these bases are important fixed “territory” it can point to when defending its claims and as part of legal arguments it makes in front of international bodies. Similarly, it has enacted an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the East Sea as another method of attempting to enforce its position. Within this zone, the country argues it can restrict foreign military movements and even dictate civilian flight paths, with any organization needing to coordinate air travel with Chinese officials. There are reports that China may be considering declaring a similar zone over the whole of the South China Sea, something its new islands could help monitor. At sea, Chinese authorities have made similar pronouncements about their control over international waters in both the South China and East Seas.

In both regions, to reinforce the country’s claims of absolute ownership, Chinese aircraft and warships have repeatedly harassed foreign civilian and military activities. The United States has responded with regular aerial and naval patrols to challenge this assertion. And though both countries might want to avoid an actual skirmish, tensions have often run high during these missions. Chinese fighter jets routinely buzz American patrol and surveillance aircraft. In May 2017, two People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) fighters performed “unsafe and unprofessional” maneuvers near a WC-135 Constant Phoenix spy plane, which collects air samples looking for evidence of nuclear tests, in international air space over the South China Sea, according to the U.S. Navy.

The China’s navy, various other maritime security forces, and the People's Armed Forces Maritime Militia – popularly known as “Little Blue Men” – all similarly shadow American warships as they move through the area during what the Pentagon pointedly refers to as “Freedom of Navigation Operations” (FONOPS). Rarely do the two sides ever truly meet. In a rare incident in May 2016, PLAAF jets scrambled from the airstrip on Fiery Cross Reef in response to the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS William P. Lawrence’s trip through the area. More flagrantly, on Dec. 15, 2016, a Chinese ship snatched a U.S. Navy underwater glider, a type of drone the service uses for underwater mapping and research activities, right out of the water and sailed away. Within a week, China had returned the Slocum glider without any real explanation of why they seized the unclassified vehicle in the first place.

But what the Chinese military hasn’t been able to do is challenge the U.S. Navy’s submarines, or those from other developed nations that patrol the East and South China seas, such as Japan and Australia. Able to operate for protracted periods under the waves, subs have an innate deterrent capability and could easily be a hidden threat to China’s man-made naval outposts during a crisis. The undersea vessels could also spy on those bases without Chinese forces being able to necessarily respond.

A Chinese warship launches anti-submarine rockets during an exercise in 2005.

In February 2017, Chinese state media announced planned changes to the country’s maritime safety statute, which would require submarines to sail on the surface with a national flag displayed when passing through regions such as the South China Sea, while reporting to Chinese maritime security organizations. Chinese officials expected the changes to take effect in 2020. "As a sovereign State and the biggest coastal State in, for example, the South China Sea, China is entitled to adjust its maritime laws as needed, which will also promote peace and stable development in the waters," Wang Xiaopeng, a maritime expert from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the state-operated newspaper Global Times. But, in addition to violating the most basic spirit of international maritime law, this would be difficult if not impossible for China to enforce at present.

Though the PLAN has spent considerable effort in improving its own “silent service,” submarines remains a relatively small portion of the country’s naval arm. As of 2016, China had approximately 56 attack and guided missile submarines, but a significant number of those are old Cold War designs or smaller coastal defense types, according to that year’s edition of The International Institute for Strategic Studies’ The Military Balance. The United States operates a similarly sized fleet, but one entirely comprised of long-range, ocean-going, nuclear-powered vessels. In addition, the U.S. military boasts more than twice as many nuclear-armed ballistic missile subs, not including four doing duty as cruise-missile boats. So, instead, the Chinese military would have to devote significant surface ships and aircraft just to hunt for foreign subs violating its new regulations.

A Chinese <em data-recalc-dims=Song-class submarine." />

An underwater surveillance net able to detect and track submarines traveling in and out of an area could dramatically change the calculus for world navies operating in the East and South China Seas, as well as potentially improving China’s negotiating position. The country has been undeterred by unfavorable determinations on its claims from international tribunals, insisting that it has the right to settle any disagreements directly with the affected parties.

Of course the new capability won’t come cheap. Official estimates are that the underwater project will cost approximately $2 billion Yuan – $300 million at the official, likely undervalued exchange rate – and take at least five years to complete. It’s not clear whether or not this will be the final total for the complete network that covers all of the East Sea and South China Sea, or just one initial portion covering a specific area.

What is clear is that China seems intent on challenging the ability of foreign navies to sail through bodies of water it considers to be part of its national territory, even under the surface.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com