Tesla celebrates Earth Day with stock crash

Tesla’s Earth Day live-streaming of its updated Autonomy self-driving capability so underimpressed Wall Street analysts, the company’s stock crashed by 4 percent.

It has been a rough six months for Elon Musk after he was forced to settle SEC charges that he made deceptive August tweets to Tesla investors regarding a supposed $420 a share bid to take the company private. The SEC first demanded that Musk be barred from serving as an officer of any public company; but then agreed to let Musk and Tesla both pay $20 million in fines, with Musk also surrendering his Tesla chairmanship.

Tesla stock tanked to $248 a share in October, surged back to $387 in December; before falling back and stabilizing at about $273 a share. But despite the Earth Day promotion, Tesla’s shares plunged by $10.51 to close at $262.75 a share.

CEO Musk kept a live-stream audience of 40,000 waiting 45 minutes before launching the event with a declaration that Tesla’s three-year effort to design and contract to build its own “three time better” computer chip set would accelerate federal “Level 4” regulatory approval for Tesla self-driving taxis, vehicles, and heavy-duty trucks within 18 months.

Musk claimed the Tesla robot-computer will work with all existing Tesla vehicles and their current sensors. That came as a problematic surprise, given that competitors such as Google’s Waymo, Uber, and GM-partnered Cruise use a sophisticated remote sensing system called LiDAR -- light detection and ranging.

Tesla began self-driving research in 2012 and first deployed its Autopilot sensor system to customers in late 2014. The system relies on three inexpensive and mature technologies: Radar, to see forward distances in conditions of light, dark, and all weather; Ultrasonic, to measure proximity in all conditions; and Passive Video, to see long distances in all directions and recognize objects in all unsafe conditions for human driving.

LiDAR is a much newer and disruptive technology that can identify the details of a few centimeters at more than 100 meters. Coupled with artificial intelligence self-learning software, LiDAR can detect pedestrians in crosswalks and bike-riders on roads and judge which way they will move by the directions of their face and body.

Although the cost for car makers to buy LiDAR has fallen 90 percent from $75,000 to $7,500, that still is much more than the $5,000 Tesla sells the Autopilot installed option.

“LIDAR is a fool’s errand,” Musk told the audience. “Anyone relying on LIDAR is doomed!" He added: “It’s like having a whole bunch of expensive appendices. Like, one appendix is bad, well now you have a whole bunch of them, it’s ridiculous, you’ll see.”

Musk stated that Tesla switched from using Nvidia’s Drive Xavier autonomous platform to its proprietary chip for the luxury Model S and X vehicles; with the high-volume Model 3 sedan expected to convert within about 10 days. Musk claimed that with all the new hardware finished, “All you need to do is improve the software.”

Editor of Cox Automotive Karl Brauer recently told CNBC there are just too many variables to address -- lighting, traffic, pedestrians, bicyclists -- before Level 4 self-driving will approved by the National Transportation Safety Board. Brauer stated that no other competitor believes these issues can be resolved in the next 12 to 18 months.

When Musk made wild promises in the past, Wall Street drove the stock price up “big-time.” But after Autopilot crashing cars and self-immolation of about a dozen of its lithium battery-powered vehicles, Wall Street was selling Tesla on this Earth Day.