Horses and Guinea Pigs: Elon Musk's Lofty Promises Raise Safety Advocates' Ire, Sink Stock

Steph Willems
by Steph Willems
horses and guinea pigs elon musks lofty promises raise safety advocates ire sink

Did you miss Autonomy Day yesterday? If you’re unaware, that’s the name given to Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s promise-filled, self-driving-focused speech to investors yesterday in the cradle of dreams (also known as Silicon Valley). There, Musk promised cars a driver can sleep in; cars that will make its owner money. Cars that, despite their self-driving nature, might be allowed to bash other vehicles around a bit.

Also stemming from that announcement? Musk’s assertion that any new car that isn’t a Tesla will be as antiquated and useless as a horse in three years. That’s right, even that affordable Kia Rio hatch that can be serviced anywhere. It’s “financially insane” to buy that, you know.

The Samsung-built computer chip and associated neural network, now found in all new Teslas, will analyze real-time sensor data and learn from it, refining the software’s algorithms and creating a world in which self-driving cars can operate safely and reliably, regardless of weather and obstacles. That’s the promise.

As before, it’s a world mapped via cameras and radar, not LIDAR. Competitors like Waymo that utilize lasers to feel out their surroundings are “doomed,” Musk said. They’ll all be switching over in no time.

In 12-15 months, Musk said, an app-based robotaxi network will spring up, allowing owners to deploy their self-driving cars as revenue-generating tools. Like Uber or Lyft, the Tesla Network ride-hailing service will take a cut from its operators of 20 to 30 percent. Oh, the money you’ll make.

How much, you ask? Tesla estimates gross annual profits of $30,000 per vehicle, though Musk tossed up a slide mentioning revenue opportunities of hundreds of thousands of dollars per vehicle. Figures you can bank on, surely.

Musk on where he came up with some of the figures he’s presenting to show that Tesla cars can make money for their owners by being used as robotaxis: “We just randomly threw some numbers on there.”

— Nick Bunkley (@nickbunkley) April 22, 2019

“I feel very confident predicting that there will be autonomous robotaxis from Tesla next year — not in all jurisdictions because we won’t have regulatory approval everywhere,” Musk said, gaining steam. “We will have more than one million robotaxis on the road. A year from now, we’ll have over a million cars with full self-driving, software… everything.”

“The fleet wakes up with an over the air update; that’s all it takes,” Musk continued.

Despite the fact that no car in existence today counts as Level 5-capable, scores of Teslas will apparently gain this hard-fought capability in a year’s time, as well as the governmental go-ahead to operate as a passenger service on all roads, not just in strictly-defined, “geofenced” areas.

“I’m confident we’ll get regulatory approval somewhere,” Musk said.

Not interested in your car becoming a cabbie? The new chip’s power will aid owners (specifically, those who bought the Full Self Driving package) who simply want to cruise with hands off the wheel, Musk said. The CEO added that, as the neural network learns, “we’ll allow users to select a more aggressive [Autopilot] mode.” In other words, a self-driving system that allows “a slight chance of a fender bender.”

Who’s liable in such a collision? Why, Tesla, of course. Musk apparently wants to make his company as open to litigation as he is.

The fallout from Musk’s investor bedtime stories was public condemnation from safety advocates and a stock price that headed in just one direction: down.

“It is damaging to public discussion about advanced vehicle technologies — and potentially unsafe — to refer to vehicles now available for sale to the public using inaccurate terms,” stated Partners for Automated Vehicle Education, a group tasked with educating the public on self-driving technology.

David Friedman, vice president of advocacy at Consumer Reports, took Musk to task for his promises, claiming he was “treating the public like guinea pigs.”

“We’ve heard promises of self-driving vehicles being just around the corner from Tesla before,” Friedman said. “Claims about the company’s driving automation systems and safety are not backed up by the data, and it seems today’s presentations had more to do with investors than consumers’ safety.”

[Image: Tesla]

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4 of 17 comments
  • Mike Beranek Mike Beranek on Apr 24, 2019

    Until autonomous systems can handle a blizzard-induced whiteout in a barren Midwestern landscape, it ain't nothing. Call me when you're serious, Elon.

    • See 1 previous
    • ToolGuy ToolGuy on Apr 24, 2019

      mcs, VERY cool - thank you.

  • Islander800 Islander800 on Apr 24, 2019

    This guy is irresponsible with his "promises", all with the intent to juice his stock price. The SEC should slap him with a sizeable fine and force him to SHUT UP. The NHTSA needs to slap a cease and desist order on this charlatan calling his current system "autopilot". It is no such thing, but people believe it is. Completely autonomous vehicles are decades away, if that. He is promising something that is currently impossible. Until that day when they are as safe as commercial aircraft (pun intended)they should be BANNED from public roadways.

  • SPPPP It seems like a really nice car that's just still trying to find its customer.
  • MRF 95 T-Bird I owned an 87 Thunderbird aka the second generation aero bird. It was a fine driving comfortable and very reliable car. Quite underrated compared to the GM G-body mid sized coupes since unlike them they had rack and pinion steering and struts on all four wheels plus fuel injection which GM was a bit late to the game on their mid and full sized cars. When I sold it I considered a Mark VII LSC which like many had its trouble prone air suspension deleted and replaced with coils and struts. Instead I went for a MN-12 Thunderbird.
  • SCE to AUX Somebody got the bill of material mixed up and never caught it.Maybe the stud was for a different version (like the 4xe) which might use a different fuel tank.
  • Inside Looking Out Scandinavian design costs only $600? I mean the furniture.
  • Akear Lets be honest, Lucid will not be around in five years. It does not matter that it is probably the world's best EV sedan. Lucid's manufacturing and marketing is a complete mess. The truth is most EV companies are going under within the decade.