Tesla CEO Elon Musk waded into Donald Trump territory yesterday.
He didn't get a new hairdo, succumb to bouts of sniffling, or get caught praising the Pontiac Aztec on a hot-mic recording from 2005. (Though if anyone has access to that last one, we'd love a copy.)
Instead, Musk, like Trump, attacked the media--specifically those who've written critically about Tesla's Autopilot. In fact, he said that such journalists are literally "killing people".
His one-two combo of blame-dodging paired with a hyperbolic right hook came during a conference call with reporters on Wednesday. Here's the relevant quote, courtesy of Mashable:
"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 media coverage of the 1.2 million people that die every year in manual crashes. It's something that I think does not reflect well upon the media. It really doesn’t. Because — and 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."
Filter out that appalling rhetoric, and you'll note that Musk wasn't talking about critics of autonomous cars in general. He was talking specifically about critics of his company's own product, which makes his statements a little less noble.
To writers who've covered both the good and the not-so-good of Tesla's first few years in business, Musk's remarks are outrageous and offensive. They damage his brand and that of Tesla, reaffirming what we've all known for some time: that charismatic leaders like Musk can often let their egos get the best of them.
In praise of scrutiny
On the off chance that Musk and his co-workers happen to be reading this, allow us to explain why we've covered Autopilot so closely, including the collisions and the fatality associated with it:
1. It's newsworthy. As Musk rightly notes, over a million people die each year in car crashes. While each and every one of those deaths is noteworthy--as are many of the injuries and non-fatal collisions--accidents involving Autopilot are something new. And "new" is what we cover in journalism: it's built into the word "news".
2. Autopilot is at the cutting edge of technology. Very soon, self-driving cars will become commonplace. Some vehicles, like Tesla's, are racing toward full autonomy. Others will take a slower approach, rolling out new autonomous features over time.
Tesla vehicles with Autopilot are the first self-driving cars on our roads. They represent a major shift in the way that we get around. For those reasons and more, they deserve more coverage and greater scrutiny than human-driven vehicles on the road.
3. The ethics of Autopilot have been hazy at times. Musk himself has said that Autopilot is still in beta. He's insisted that it's "not beta software in any normal sense of the word", but the fact remains that it's in beta, and it was made available to Tesla drivers who didn't purchase their vehicles with Autopilot in mind. It was an unexpected gift, and like many unexpected gifts, some people have misused it.
Could Tesla have made the upgrade more selective? Done a slower roll-out? Musk has expressed some very noble sentiments on that point: "when used correctly, [Autopilot] is already significantly safer than a person driving by themselves and it would therefore be morally reprehensible to delay release simply for fear of bad press or some mercantile calculation of legal liability."
That's a fair statement--one that anticipates some hard questions from the media. So, why is he complaining about media scrutiny now?
Also on the subject of ethics, it appears that in some markets like China's, Tesla sales personnel have intentionally misled consumers into believing that Autopilot is fully autonomous software. It's unclear whether the employees misunderstood the product themselves, miscommunicated with shoppers, or received such directives from Tesla HQ. All we know for sure is that as part of Tesla's sales pitch, Autopilot has sometimes been pitched as something it's not.
4. Coverage and criticism aren't the same thing. Some journalists plainly fear and/or despise self-driving cars, but they're relatively few and far between. Some at the opposite end of the spectrum have a too-rosy view of the technology. (Interestingly, they seem slightly less-rare.) Most writers, however, understand that autonomous cars are coming, and they write about such vehicles as they would cover any new technology, pointing out both its strengths and weaknesses.
Musk and Co. should know better than to equate coverage with criticism.
Those are just a few of the reasons why journalists have been and will continue to write about Autopilot. And when we do, even when we're critical, know this: we're not killing anyone.