October 21, 2016

elon musk 2 Steve Jurvetson

Elon Musk is clearly a very smart man capable of doing incredible things. He’s single-handedly changed the way we live and he deserves huge dollops of credit. But man, he really put both feet in it when he claimed that the press is killing people when they write negative stories about Autopilot.

Frankly, this is beneath him. He knows how the world works by now. He’s a big boy with a number of successes to his name. Yet this comes off as the controlling, manipulative agenda of a particularly spoiled child.

Now it does have some foundation. We get it, Autopilot is a good thing that can save lives and we do have some sympathy for the way it’s treated.

Certain sectors of the media do start frothing at the mouth when there’s a problem with the self-driving system and they do seem really willing to jump on every problem. We’ve made that point ourselves and a Tesla with Autopilot is statistically safer than manual driving on almost any quantifiable level. We agree with that.

The numbers work in Tesla’s favor

The Joshua Brown fatality occurred after 130 million Autopilot-controlled miles, which compares favorably to the one every 94 million miles of manual driving in the US and 60 million miles worldwide. Now Autopilot has covered 222 million miles, as of the start of this month, and we haven’t had another. So we don’t have enough data, it’s not a good scientific survey, but so far Autopilot is doing pretty damned well.

We know that 94% of fatal accidents can trace their roots back to human error and that’s a solid self-driving system.

But that doesn’t mean that the public isn’t going to ask questions when there’s an issue. This is new tech, and Musk has pushed on with a radar system while the likes of Ford and Google have worked on lidar.

Musk himself has admitted that the new system might well have saved Joshua Brown, so it’s part of a civilized society that when somebody dies at the hands of new tech then we ask questions and try to find out why.

“One of the things I should mention that frankly has been quite disturbing to me is the degree of media coverage of Autopilot crashes, which are basically almost none relative to the paucity of media coverage of the 1.2 million people that die every year in manual crashes. [It is] something that I think does not reflect well upon the media. It really doesn’t.

“Because, and really you need to think carefully about this, because if, in writing some article that’s negative, you effectively dissuade people from using an autonomous vehicle, you’re killing people.”

Elon Musk is still one of the greatest pioneers of this generation and plenty more besides. He may even have the greatest impact of any man, ever, on the human race. But this, right here, sounds insane.

On Mars, he can lay down the law. Here? Not so much…

Even if a new system is 10 times better than the one we’re used to, we’re entitled to ask questions when it fails. That’s just the way it is. That is something that Elon Musk is just going to have to get used to until he moves to Mars and can make his own laws.

Rather than control everyone else’s narrative, Musk should get his own house in order and focus on telling his side of the story. Tesla are masters of social media. So why aren’t they pushing the Autopilot successes rather than ranting about a slanted media like this?

Every car comes with cameras and, due to the very nature of Autopilot, a supercomputer in Palo Alto will know that a car has taken evasive action before the driver. Now all Tesla has to do is tell the world.

Of course, they’d need the owner’s permission, but that isn’t a big deal. They could harvest the footage and have a weekly feature. People would love to see a car stepping in and saving a driver from a horrendous crash. Newspapers around the world would love the free content and the tone will slowly change.

His customers are fans too

Tesla owners are some of the biggest brand advocates we’ve seen since Apple and they’d be happy to ram it down sanctimonious cynics’ throats. They’d share the story on Tesla’s behalf.

So Musk should take the reigns of this and do his own legwork. He should shape the story, not whine about it. And don’t complain when people ask questions in the wake of crashes and deaths. We know they’re the price of progress, but we want to learn the lessons.

Musk is the pioneer here, he’s taking the world by the hand and leading it somewhere new. He should respect the fact that he’s holding human lives in his hands and he has to be willing to answer when things go wrong.

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