Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger III, commonly known as “Captain Sully,” famous for safely landing a crippled airliner in the Hudson River, recently tweeted about Tesla’s Autopilot. While this looks bad, it does present a good opportunity for Tesla — if Tesla responds intelligently.
“Tesla announced the launch of so-called ‘full self-driving’ features that are largely unregulated as soon as this year,” Sullenberger wrote in his tweet. “This should concern everyone who will share the same streets as a driver or pedestrian.”
At first glance, this definitely looks bad for Tesla. It questions the whole concept of FSD and implies that it’s unsafe, or could be unsafe. And it does it in two sentences.
I want to briefly cover why Sullenberger’s tweet matters for Tesla’s image and explore a way that Tesla could turn this into an opportunity to not only look good to the public, but make real improvements to safety.
Why Sullenberg’s Tweet Matters
“Captain Sully” is a household name. People know who he is. People trust him. The public at large thinks what he has to say about safety matters, and, most importantly, they’re right!
Safely landing the Flight 1549 was just the icing on the cake of an extremely successful career. It should be noted that Captain Sullenberger wasn’t just any pilot who happened to get lucky and land the plane in the Hudson. After years of success as a decorated USAF pilot, he spent 30 years as a commercial pilot. During all of this, he became a well-known instructor and expert in the aviation safety community. He was involved in numerous accident investigations, served on advisory boards and committees, co-authored papers with NASA scientists, and did many other things to push the state of the art forward in air transportation safety.
Regarding Flight 1549, Sullenberger said, “One way of looking at this might be that for 42 years, I’ve been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience, education and training. And on January 15, the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal.” While he admits to being terrified by the experience of landing that plane, and suffering emotionally afterward like any human being would after such an experience, listening to the radio traffic of that day shows just how right he was about the importance of education and training. He remained calm as long as he needed to and took care of business.
Where the rest of us would be screaming, praying, or otherwise losing our damned minds, Sullenberger was calmly saying things like, “we can’t do it” and “we’re gonna be in the Hudson” in the same way one of us would tell our spouse, “Honey, I’ll be home in 5 minutes.”
Just to drive this home a little further — when they made a movie about Flight 1549, Sullenberger was portrayed by Tom Hanks. In a 2013 poll, Reader’s Digest found Hanks to be the most trusted person in America. When Hollywood is looking for somebody to play the good guy, especially when the movie is based on a true story, they go for Tom Hanks. He’s even going to portray Mr. Rogers from “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” in an upcoming film.
You know if they make a movie about you and Tom Hanks plays you, you’ve arrived at public trust level 99. Sullenberger is just that trusted. What he says matters to people, as it should.
How Tesla Can Turn This Into An Opportunity
The next time Elon Musk (or e^eyepie, Elon Tusk, or whatever he’s jokingly calling himself today) gets on Twitter, he needs to invite Captain Sully to come visit Tesla.
Actually, it needs to be more than just a visit. They need to pay for his consulting services today and worry about the price later.
Sullenberger is a safety expert, especially when it comes to transportation. Hiring him to step in as a consultant won’t be cheap, and it will be even less easy. He’s not the kind of person who would take the money and put his stamp of approval on something without demanding it actually be safe. He’s probably going to demand that other experts take a look. Most importantly, that’s a good thing. Having somebody take a hard look at Autopilot, demand positive changes, and make the product safer is a win for Tesla, a win for the public, and a win for the future of humanity.
If Tesla can get the “Captain Sully Stamp of Approval,” whatever that looks like, it would be a big win not just for the company’s image, but for the safety of the product itself.
Elon, if you’re reading this, you know what to do.
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