Tesla is the first company to release a sophisticated auto-steer and adaptive cruise control system that we call Autopilot (or AP for short). Since that software release Tesla Model S and Model X owners have collectively driven over 100 million miles using the AP system.
The system may be poorly named because those who are ignorant on the topic may read about it and think the driver can sit back and relax with his or her hands off the wheel. This is not the case. Tesla insists that drivers pay attention to the road and keep their hands on the wheel so they can take over if something happens that the AP system can’t deal with.
There are lots of things that might fall into this category:
- Some sections of highway have nearly no visible lines due to paint fading. The car will have trouble in this situation.
- The Autopilot system can’t necessarily react to stationary cars blocking part of a lane (the human eye, on the other hand, can see much further)
- Traffic that crosses in front of you, perpendicular to your direction of travel, may not be detected. So to avoid a T-bone crash you should keep your eyes on the road!
I’m sure the list could be made much longer, but you get the point. Autopilot is not meant for you to sit back and check email, etc. Every customer knows this and must agree to this before using the software.
There is an inherent PR problem with software like this, and it stems from human ignorance and stupidity, which appear to breed in abundance. It goes like this:
- Tesla was the first to release such software.
- No matter how impressive, reliable or safe the software is for it’s intended purpose, it can’t be perfect.
- Even worse, customers are not perfect. Some are imperfect and stupid. Ignoring the driving environment is stupid and dangerous, yet people do this every day. One great example: Texting while driving.
- Some portion of unsafe drivers will be Tesla drivers, and they will do unsafe things while using Tesla Autopilot. Some will crash. Some will die. It’s sad, but it’s also true.
- These accidents are food for the media. In such reports, people tend to notice what is new or what is different rather than what is similar. The obvious difference is Tesla Autopilot. The (ignored) similarity is unsafe driving behavior by bad drivers.
- Some, and perhaps many of these people will fall victim to logical fallacy. They’ll assume that, because Tesla Autopilot came before the crash, it must have caused the crash.
The technical name for the logical fallacy described above is “Post hoc ergo propter hoc“. In English it means “after this therefore because of this”.
That, in a nutshell, is the problem ANY company in Tesla’s position would be facing if they’d gone first. Any company would face this problem no matter how incredible the software. Most executives know this and are scared by this, which is why the progress has been slow prior to Tesla.
Thankfully Elon Musk had the balls to go first.
He, and Tesla, clearly understand that a bad driver outcome while using Autopilot is a statistical inevitability – whether by driver inattentiveness or by Autopilot being imperfect. When we strip out the emotions, the pure logical conclusion is that we should absolutely push forward with these systems if the good they do is greater than the harm they cause.
Tesla knows it will be under the microscope and unfairly blamed in some situations. They know this will result in bad press. And in my opinion, it is important that they defend themselves from bad analysis that is easily spread across the Internet.
Decades ago Audi suffered in the US market because the public thought it’s cars were suddenly accelerating. The real issue was that some drivers were stepping on the gas instead of the brake, and (through mistake or lie) claiming otherwise.
Back then there was no Internet. Audi couldn’t defend itself on Twitter, or in a blog post. The Internet is one huge accelerator pedal, and it can amplify the speed at which news travels. The Internet does not care if the news is correct, incorrect, logical, illogical, whatever.
I’ve seen many journalists claim that Tesla is not handling the PR situation well. I’m not sure what they think Tesla should be doing. When a magazine like Fortune publishes wildly inaccurate articles to a large audience, Tesla is hurt. It’s obvious to me that the correct thing to do is go on the offensive and point out the errors. As a shareholder I hope they continue to do what they are doing. It helps move the world forward.