With his tweets about flamethrowers, tunnels and a plan to build a "cyborg dragon," Elon Musk has shifted himself into ludicrous mode. Meanwhile, his car company may be putting people in danger.
That company, Tesla, makes the safest cars on the road, according to none other than the CEO himself. A big part of what Musk says makes Teslas so unbelievably safe is a driver-assist feature called Autopilot.
Autopilot, like many similar features being developed by other automakers, has great potential. But there's a reason that other automakers don't roll out such technology without the kind of lengthy, exhaustive testing that Tesla is apparently counting on the general public to conduct.
A crash on Friday in Utah shows what's wrong with Tesla's strategy. The driver of a Model S, a 28-year-old woman, says she had Autopilot engaged and admits looking at her phone when the car slammed into the back of a fire truck that was waiting at a red light.
Because Autopilot was involved, the incident has naturally gotten more attention than most crashes in which the only injuries were a broken ankle for the Tesla driver and whiplash for the fire truck driver. Musk responded in what has become his usual fashion, which is to blame the media for being unfair and riling up his many fans, some of whom have probably read just the headline and then skipped to the end of this column to find my email address so they can accuse me of shorting Tesla stock.
"It's super messed up that a Tesla crash resulting in a broken ankle is front page news and the ~40,000 people who died in US auto accidents alone in past year get almost no coverage," Musk tweeted Monday afternoon. He continued: "What's actually amazing about this accident is that a Model S hit a fire truck at 60 mph and the driver only broke an ankle. An impact at that speed usually results in severe injury or death."
First off, I haven't seen any examples of this story being "front page news" anywhere, and most of those other deaths do get covered locally (For the record, Automotive News did not cover this story until police confirmed the driver admitted engaging the Autopilot function). The majority of these stories aren't national news because they don't relate to a new technology promoted as saving lives. But beyond that, Musk's focus on the fact that the driver survived relatively unscathed misses the bigger, more important picture.
What if it hadn't been a sturdy fire truck in front of the car? What if it had been you, just minding your own business in a vehicle that wouldn't absorb such a violent impact so well?
Musk's statements, his clash with the National Transportation Safety Board over the investigation of Autopilot's role in a fatal Model X crash in California, and even the decision to use the name Autopilot, suggest that he's concerned only with his own customers. What about the rest of us who share the road with Tesla buyers -- some of whom seem to think they can stop paying attention because the car will handle the very important job of not crashing into things?
Vehicles have to be designed not only to protect their occupants, but so they don't pose an undue hazard to others on the road.
Musk has acknowledged that Autopilot "needs to be better" and said Tesla works "to improve it every day." But he argues that technology which, "on balance, saves lives & reduces injuries should be released."
We saw what happened recently in Arizona, where a software error apparently made an Uber self-driving Volvo decide it didn't need to stop for a woman walking her bike across the road. Elaine Herzberg didn't agree to Uber's testing strategy, and I'm sure her family isn't comforted by the idea that autonomous vehicles can, "on balance," kill fewer pedestrians.
Musk might be right that Autopilot can help reduce the appalling number of deaths and injuries that occur on U.S. roads every year, and there's good evidence that Tesla's cars generally do protect their occupants well when crashes do occur.
But statistics become meaningless if the last thing someone sees is a Tesla coming up fast in the rearview mirror.