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Monday, May 16, 2022

Making an Unwanted Splash

It’s been an odd early summer, a time when our thoughts should drift to barbecues, solving the Times crossword puzzle and a lazy week at the beach. These days, of course, that’s just a fantasy, tethered as we are 24/7 to the world by our smart phones and tablets. So don’t find it strange when I tell you my thoughts have drifted to drones, Uber, rutted streets and submarine cars traversing deep under our beloved Santa Monica Bay. Yes, a truly strange time it is. So what do I mean by all that? Well, if you’re tech fan, and who isn’t these days, you couldn’t but sit up and take notice of all the amazing advances coming from L.A. and California companies. Let’s put it like this, I think the days of “The Jetsons” are upon us. AeroVironment Inc. made headlines last week when it was disclosed that the FAA gave it permission to fly its Puma drone to map an Alaskan oilfield for BP petroleum – the first time the agency has approved drone flights for commercial use over land. In case you were wondering about the Valley connection, the small, 14-pound drone is made by the Monrovia company at its Simi Valley plant. Then, there’s L.A.’s very own mogul of the moment, Elon Musk, whose Tesla carmaker has put the zip back into electric vehicles and whose SpaceX in Hawthorne is making incredible advances in building a reusable rocket ship. The goal is to shuttle astronauts – and likely one day just plain citizens – up and back in space, landing the rocket slowly on its tail end, as thrusters billow out clouds of exhaust, just like in a cartoon. Musk’s company threatens to break up the comfortable arrangement between NASA, the military and large makers of disposable rockets. But what really caught my attention the other week was his comments about how his company could easily make a flying car but how he’s really more interested in making a submarine car, which would make quite the splash at the beach. Musk isn’t crazy; he acknowledged the market would be “quite small” and he’s only talking about some demos. And for those not in on the secret, Musk is a Bond nut who paid nearly $1 million for the Lotus that made just such an appearance in the otherwise forgettable “The Spy Who Loved Me” in 1977. Ah, but let’s get back to painful reality, literally. Forget the drones and cars that either fly or traverse our waters. Angelenos are driving on dilapidated roads that ruin our tires and suspensions, a situation that appears will not change any time soon. Last week, a planned $3.86 billion bond measure to repair decaying streets and sidewalks –co-sponsored by the Valley’s Mitch Englander – was put on hold when Mayor Eric Garcetti said he wasn’t comfortable raising sales taxes to pay for it. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve already railed against the whole notion of needing extra dollars to pay for a fundamental city service, but with L.A. streets in such disrepair who has a better idea? I can tell you this much, the mayor’s plan to instead focus on “reforming City Hall” and make departments “more efficient” isn’t going to cut it unless that involves working street crews 24 hours a day, seven days a week with donated asphalt. Which brings me to Uber Technologies, that super cool ride-sharing app that has cabbies so worried about their livelihood they staged demonstrations last week not only in Los Angeles but London.worldwide last week. The San Francisco company is so hot that its latest $1.2 billion funding round values it at $18 billion, a mind-blowing figure for what is little more than a glorified hitch hiking service. But I predict that at least in the rate we are going in Los Angeles, .A., all those Uber drivers may find their car- repair bills not worth the fare. So, maybe I can connect the dots ofn my summer musings. We live in a time of incredible technological advancement and business disruption. At the same time, our mayor is trying to modernize a bureaucratic City Hall – asphalt aside, he’s been lauded for efforts to streamline the business permit process. But the pace of that reform is so slow in so many areas – compared to the leaps our business community is making – that there is a danger the wrong Elon Musk dream will become a reality. Just imagine, all those denizens of Malibu, bypassing our rutted streets, getting into their electric submarine cars and driving straight through Santa Monica Bay to their preferred destinations around town. Take that James Bond. Laurence Darmiento is editor of the Business Journal. He can be reached at editor@sfvbj.com.

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