Patrick PleulAFP via Getty Images
Just as his efforts to buy Twitter caused the world to focus on the management style and trading strategies of Elon Musk, FX and The New York Times have stepped up with a documentary taking a close look at how Musk responded to crashes involving the Autopilot feature in cars from his company, Tesla.
For those watching Musk’s restless attempt to buy Twitter, the film also serves as a pointed comparison; showing how his penchant for bold gestures and provocative statements can lead fans to see what they want in his words – whether or not what he says is actually possible.
As part of FX The New York Times presents documentary series, Elon Musk’s crash course suggests that Musk has oversold the self-driving capabilities of cars, which has confused the public about what he could actually do. And when federal authorities opened an investigation into a fatal crash involving the technology, the program says Musk pressured officials to stall the investigation.
“He was saying really cool things — like sci-fi stuff — and he made you believe you could do it,” said JT Stukes, a former senior product engineer at Tesla, noting how Musk’s ambitious public statements stack up. are transformed into goals that staff members would have. work hard to achieve.
“The message goes up and down constantly”, adds Cade Metz, technological correspondent of the New York Times. “Elon can change his mind at any time. He can say one thing at one time and then say something completely different.”
A look at Musk’s leadership history and style
The film features new interviews with a wide range of subjects, including former Tesla employees and business leaders, Time journalists and friends of a man who was killed in a 2016 accident while using the Autopilot feature of his Tesla. Musk declined to sit down for an interview, but is represented by numerous clips from public appearances and past interviews.
In one clip, Musk is shown calling the development of self-driving technology for cars a “problem solved”; in others, he predicts a near future when cars will be able to park and travel long distances without the help of the driver.
Time journalists and some critics say such bullish comments have confused consumers, leading them to think Tesla’s cars can be trusted to drive themselves. The film notes that Tesla used the hype around its Autopilot system as a selling point to entice consumers to buy its cars.
But Tesla insists drivers should keep their hands on the wheel while Autopilot operates, just in case the system fails to recognize a road hazard. (In a revealing news clip, a CNN anchor asks: If drivers still have to hold the wheel while Autopilot is on, “what’s the point?”)
Crashes involving Tesla’s Autopilot feature explicitly illustrate the high stakes involved. One man, Josh Brown, was killed when his car failed to recognize a tractor-trailer crossing in front of the vehicle.
“People trusted the system to do things it wasn’t designed or capable of,” Stukes said. “The fact that…[Brown’s accident] happened was obviously tragic… But it was going to happen.”
Questions about Tesla’s development process
A former employee noted that Musk sent Autopilot updates to his personal vehicles, so staffers ended up working to address his concerns instead of addressing larger issues. Another former employee said cameras used by cars to detect traffic and roads had a blind spot where a small dog or small child might not be seen.
When the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration finally released its report into the accident that claimed Brown’s life, it concluded that the autopilot system was not at fault, as it was an advanced system. driver assistance requiring the driver to be attentive during operation. The report also included an observation – which the film said was based on data from Tesla – that the company’s cars with automatic steering technology crashed 40% less than those without. not, allowing Tesla to present the report as a positive conclusion.
The film quoted a former employee, software engineer Raven Jiang, who was troubled by the operation of the system. “Sometimes it seems like people and companies were being rewarded, not for telling the truth, but in fact, for doing a bit of the opposite,” he added.
Like a few other TV projects these days, the documentary focuses on the strategy employed by many Silicon Valley executives to talk about the possibilities of their companies’ products before their achievements are fully realized. It’s a “fake until you make it” style that allows companies to harness enthusiasm and capital to achieve goals that might otherwise seem impossible to achieve.
But Elon Musk’s crash course is a direct look at the dangers of such an approach when the product involved is controlling a speeding automobile.
And it asks all of us to consider the possible harm of a system that tolerates – and even rewards – such risks in the service of powerful and wealthy business magnates in pursuit of profit and glory.