Tesla chief Elon Musk is often referred to, somewhat romantically and surely a little tongue-in-cheek, as the real world’s Tony Stark – better known as the Marvel Comics superhero, Iron Man.
Musk may not fly around in a repulsor-packed power suit, but he does make his millions and his name on blue-sky thinking. He does push himself and his people to explore and exploit new ideas.
And, just like Stark, he isn’t known for his tact.
Disclosure: I’m a fan. Of Iron Man, sure, but, yes, also of Musk. Hell, if he’s as close as we’ve come to a real-life Tony Stark – or perhaps, more accurately, Carl Sagan’s S. R. Hadden – I’ll take it.
Of course, it has been said that you should never meet your heroes, because you might not like what you learn about them. (Discovering that whacky rocker Beck is a scientologist was just about all I could take.)
This week I had the opportunity to join a conference call with Musk, where he would announce the new Enhanced Autopilot and fully self-driving systems now being baked into every new Tesla. Tough to say no, and, you know, it’s my job.
During a guided Q&A session, Musk outlined the features of the new technology and his goals over the coming year.
There is almost always a moment in any briefing with Musk when he will reveal a sliver of honesty that most executives would be well-and-truly trained to withhold. This time, it was when Musk warned the assembled journalists to be mindful of their influence in driving the future.
Responding to a question of Tesla’s views on accepting responsibility for crashes involving its self-driving technology – as Volvo and Audi have both done – Musk offered assurance that in any incident where the cause was found to be “endemic to our design”, the responsibility would be borne by Tesla.
Turning his attention to the controversy that has surrounded the company’s Autopilot system almost since launch, around one year ago, Musk expressed disappointment in the reporting of potential issues with the technology.
“The degree of media coverage of autopilot crashes has been disturbing, compared to the paucity of the [media coverage for the] 1.2 million people that die every year in motor crashes – it does not reflect well on media,” he said.
Musk then levelled a clear accusation of negligence in the press: “if you write an article that dissuades people from buying an Autopilot car, you’re killing people”.
Blimey, Elon. Tell us how you really feel, why don’t you?
Musk’s grievance is clear enough. Even putting aside his commercial interests in selling as many cars as he can, it is generally held that Musk is bent on saving the world – whether we want it or not. If he has the sense that his company is being given a disproportionate amount of negative press, it’s no surprise that a man burning along at a million miles an hour would worry that his plan for a bright future could all be brought undone so easily, so carelessly, by a headline-hungry media.
In fairness, he’s right on one point: we don’t report heavily on the 1.2 million fatalities that occur on the world’s roads each year. Only in an abstract sense, as a point of data in articles about infrastructure and congestion and… driverless technology.
We don’t cover those stories to dissuade people from ever going near a Toyota, or any of the billions of vehicles fitted with a Takata airbag. We report on the known, and on reports published elsewhere, making clear the difference. Then, we leave it to our intelligent readers to form their own opinions. Hopefully, we’ve armed them with the unbiased information they need to make that call, and we accept that many have a cross to bear against this brand or that – and sometimes against us, if their view doesn’t align with our reporting. That’s human nature.
The thing is, Autopilot has been described by Musk himself as a ‘beta’ program, using the travels of his customers – aware and willing participants, thankfully – to hone and prove the technology. They are his guinea pigs, and although I find the technology exciting and promising, I understand why Tesla’s detractors see its availability as reckless and dangerous.
You can’t roll this sort of technology out to the public, and expect that idiots won’t upload videos of themselves taking a nap at the wheel. And you can’t expect that the media will shrug it off, declaring the beta program a necessary step toward a brighter future.
We’ve written of Tesla’s achievements and advancements, and we’ve written about Tesla’s darkest moments. I believe we’ve done so in equal measure, but, Elon, what you won’t get is the former without the latter.
Look on the bright side: you won’t get the latter on its own, either. You build your cars, I’ll keep fanboying, and CarAdvice will keep reporting on the ups and downs.
I’ll be hoping for more of the former, but no favours here, Iron Man.