From a public relations perspective, it’s been a tough couple of weeks for Tesla. About two weeks ago, word broke that Tesla’s Autopilot software may have been at fault in a fatal accident involving a Model S, even prompting the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to initiate an investigation into the matter.
Since then, two additional reports regarding Tesla vehicles crashing with the Autopilot software feature engaged have emerged. And to top it all off, Tesla may soon find itself subject to an SEC investigation for failing to disclose the aforementioned fatality to shareholders in a timely manner.
With Tesla finding itself in the news for all the wrong reasons, it’s been easy to find fault with the way that Tesla CEO Elon Musk has been running the company.
But a recent piece from Road & Track takes the opposite perspective. Titled Leave Tesla Alone, Jack Baruth opines that the media has been needlessly hard on Tesla and that we should instead focus on the magical technical advancements Tesla has introduced rather than “scrutinizing it over every misstep.”
Calling a tragic death a “misstep” aside, Baruth brings up a few interesting points. For starters, early indications suggest that the recent spate of Model S/X crashes have occurred in instances when the company’s Autopilot software wasn’t being used correctly. With respect to the Model S that crashed into a tractor-trailer, for example, one witness said that the driver may have been watching a portable DVD player at the time of the crash. And while it’s completely circumstantial, a DVD player was found amid the car’s wreckage.
With respect to the recent Model X crash that occurred on a Montana road, Tesla issued a statement yesterday indicating that the driver disregarded alert notifications from the car’s Autopilot system.
And more broadly speaking, Tesla will be the first to tell you that driving with the company’s Autopilot software is statistically the safest way to travel. Specifically, there is approximately 1.08 auto-related death per every 100 million miles driven. On Tesla vehicles that make use of the company’s Autopilot software, the ratio is one auto-related death per every 130 million miles.
And that difference, Baruth argues, should be heralded as a great accomplishment.
In any even remotely sane universe, this achievement would be celebrated in the most hyperbolic fashion possible by every man, woman, and child on the planet. Americans would be as proud of the Tesla Model S as we used to be about the moon landing or about winning the Cold War. The entire auto industry would be working night and day to make a car that could beat Tesla at its own game.
Needless to say, the world of 2016 is a thoroughly insane universe, so none of the above is happening. Instead, there’s a cottage industry springing up of people who are trying to make a name, or a living, or both, disparaging Tesla and its products. Instead of celebrating the existence of a self-autonomous electric car, they are focused on whatever individual gain they can scrape for themselves off the bottom of Elon Musk’s shoe.
It’s an interesting perspective, to be sure. And truth be told, Tesla’s Autopilot software is incredible and almost seems like magic. But the marvel of the software aside, we have to be honest: any time you have a car that weighs more than 4,500 pounds and is built like a tank, the software that is supposed to control it autonomously shouldn’t be immune from criticism, no matter how cool the underlying technology is.
With respect to Tesla, I think one of the main problems has been that the company hasn’t clearly communicated to its drivers what its Autopilot software is capable and not capable of. What’s more, even the name of the feature itself — Autopilot — seems to imply that the technology is more advanced than it truly is.
Meanwhile, Tesla has defended its Autopilot software, though the company did recently say that it’s planning to publish an “explanatory blog post that highlights how Autopilot works as a safety system and what drivers are expected to do after they activate it.” As we noted yesterday, that’s great and all, but is something that should have unquestionably been released alongside the rollout of the software itself.
As a final point, I don’t know that the media takes particular glee in specifically singling out Tesla, an argument Baruth makes. Rather, Tesla is the most forward-thinking auto manufacturer on the planet and has effectively influenced the entire industry to follow in its footsteps. With Tesla leading the way, it’s only natural that the company would find itself on the receiving end of more criticism when accidents arise. After all, if there’s a car on the road today featuring driver-assisted technologies, it’s a safe bet that it’s a Tesla.