Opinion: Tesla and Elon Musk Need to Hold Themselves Accountable

Tim Healey
by Tim Healey

Tesla and its boss, Elon Musk, stepped in it again this week.

As we reported the other day, Tesla faced a recall of 54,000 vehicles because the company had programmed its Full-Self Driving software to allow rolling stops.

When the Associated Press’s Tom Krisher wrote a pretty straightforward news story describing the recall, Elon Musk called him a “lobbyist” while replying to a tweet.

We can debate all day long if Tesla should program rolling stops into its FSD software. I’m pretty sure the majority of human drivers roll stop signs regularly, but the practice is technically illegal and it’s also potentially dangerous. Whether cars with autonomous driving should be programmed to allow maneuvers that are illegal and dangerous but also commonly performed by human drivers is a thorny subject, worthy of serious discussions.

After all, do we want self-driving cars to never exceed the speed limit? Should we examine situations on a case-by-case basis (speeding and rolling stop signs are different scenarios, after all)? People smarter than you and I will be working this out as automakers work on higher levels of autonomous driving, or at least they should be.

What really ground my gears about this whole flap wasn’t that Tesla allowed the cars to roll stops. Again, it’s debatable whether it should have or not. I don’t think Tesla should’ve done it, to be clear, but I understand arguments for allowing FSD cars to roll stops, and I don’t subscribe to the moral panic I saw from some folks on Twitter. As our own Adam pointed out, we can set cruise control well above speed limits – why not allow cars to roll stop signs if the circumstances are safe?

This has been a feature for awhile and I y'all tweet more about the stop signs yesterday than I've ever see you tweet about this. https://t.co/d2XPvLxyCk pic.twitter.com/LZJTdBQZg9

— Adam J. Tonge (@ajtonge40) February 2, 2022

I do take issue with allowing FSD to make the judgment of whether it’s safe or not, given the track record of Teslas hitting things when in autonomous mode. And I understand why the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration isn’t going to allow an automaker to make design decisions – or in this case, program cars – to break the laws and/or create unsafe conditions.

Nah, what’s been boiling my blood for the past few days is how Musk, an adult male, has acted like a baby in response to the recall.

He called a reporter for the Associated Press – a nonpartisan, objective news outlet – a “lobbyist” without evidence (or without saying who and/or what the reporter was lobbying for) because he was upset about negative press.

He’s actually a lobbyist, not a journalist. There are many who pose as the latter while behaving like the former. No integrity.

Indeed, there were no safety issues. The car simply slowed to ~2 mph & continued forward if clear view with no cars or pedestrians.

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) February 1, 2022

Here’s a thought for Elon – instead of blaming someone for writing about the recall (in a fact-based news story, not an opinion piece, nonetheless), how about pointing the finger at your own company? You made a decision to allow the cars to roll stop signs. That decision pissed off regulators. If you think cars with FSD should be allowed to be programmed to roll stops, take it up with NHTSA or whatever other agencies are involved.

Here’s where I disclose that I once worked for the AP in college, covering sports, first on a freelance basis, and later, part-time. I should also disclose that this TTAC article I wrote drew the ire of the Tesla army on Twitter. Finally, I don’t know Krisher, as small as this industry is, but it’s possible we’ve met.

As for Musk, he and his legions of fans have engaged in this behavior before. Something is written about Tesla, be it a fact-based news article in which the facts are negative towards Tesla or an opinion piece critical of the company, and Musk and his army of Twitter followers go after the writer. There’s never any thought about engaging with the criticism in a reasonable manner, possibly conceding the criticism could be correct, or taking corrective action in light of facts that show the company is performing poorly. There’s no accountability.

Maybe it’s because Tesla ditched its PR department, but I think it goes beyond that. It’s a part of American culture now to blame the messenger instead of looking in the mirror. The 45th president of these United States is a master of it, but he’s far from the only person in the public eye who does this. In the sports world, there’s an executive who runs a sports-media company named after a piece of restaurant furniture who turns his loyal followers on anyone who attacks him or his company. Ask his media rivals, or an unfortunate NASCAR journalist, or the women who have accused him of inappropriate sexual behavior.

It’s a way to dodge the issue. Call us out for cars that aren’t reliable? Attack. Point out production delays? Attack. Point out that our autonomous vehicles are bouncing off of objects? Attack. Write an article about a recall, one that just points out factual truths and doesn’t really take a pro- or anti-Tesla stance but does quote two experts sending relatively mild criticism the company’s way? The writer must be a “lobbyist.”

Musk and his followers are shifting the conversation by attempting to shut down criticism and factual truths that aren’t flattering.

Enough with this shit. It’s intellectually dishonest. What Musk should’ve done is issue a statement saying he and Tesla disagreed with NHTSA about whether rolling stops should be allowed, but it would honor the agency’s request for the time being while also working with NHTSA and/or lawmakers to see if there could be a compromise that would allow Tesla (and, eventually, other automakers) to program autonomous-driving systems to roll past stop signs without coming to a complete stop, at least when conditions were deemed safe, in the future.

That, however, would be too mature for a man who once called someone a ‘pedo guy’ because that person suggested Musk’s design for a submarine used to rescue people stuck in a cave wouldn’t work.

Tom Krisher and the AP will be fine. This will blow over, and eventually, Krisher will feel safe to check his Twitter mentions once again, if he isn’t there already. The news cycle moves fast (indeed, I’d have written this sooner had I not been traveling on TTAC business, more on that next week) and soon enough, Musk will turn his attention and followers on someone/something else.

Next time, though, he should try turning the attention on himself and his company. Not only would it save critics from unwarranted harassment and possibly actually reduce the negative coverage it gets, but it might also make for a better product from Tesla.

I’m not holding my breath.

[Image: Naresh111/Shutterstock]

Tim Healey
Tim Healey

Tim Healey grew up around the auto-parts business and has always had a love for cars — his parents joke his first word was “‘Vette”. Despite this, he wanted to pursue a career in sports writing but he ended up falling semi-accidentally into the automotive-journalism industry, first at Consumer Guide Automotive and later at Web2Carz.com. He also worked as an industry analyst at Mintel Group and freelanced for About.com, CarFax, Vehix.com, High Gear Media, Torque News, FutureCar.com, Cars.com, among others, and of course Vertical Scope sites such as AutoGuide.com, Off-Road.com, and HybridCars.com. He’s an urbanite and as such, doesn’t need a daily driver, but if he had one, it would be compact, sporty, and have a manual transmission.

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  • Picard234 So this release amounts to 2.7 hours of gasoline consumption in the US. You won't even see a penny. The administration is draining the reserves for political optics, nothing more.
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