Senators Richard Blumenthal and Ed Markey are two of the best political leaders in the United States, in my opinion, but one thing has led to another with Tesla coverage and seems to have dramatically misled Blumenthal and Markey — or their aides. I don’t expect these people to follow every nuanced step and story happening at Tesla (even though there are clear reasons it would make sense to do so). So, I thought I’d help by highlighting their concerns and making 5 points that I think are important for their teams to think about.
First of all, though, note that their core concern is how Tesla is “marketing” or “advertising” the capabilities of its “Autopilot” and “Full Self-Driving” tech packages. (Of course, Tesla doesn’t advertise, so we are just talking about Tesla marketing materials here.) I can understand where those concerns come from. It’s easy to look at a trail of stories and talking points about these and come to the conclusion that something horrible is afoot. However, I do think that their conclusion is wrong, misguided, and counterproductive — for human society as well as for their own political goals (and the biggest negative effect may indeed be with the latter). Also, I think that the seeds of their concerns stem from the oil industry and other longtime “haters” (“critics” would give them too much credit) who have a vested interested in seeing Tesla fail. The oil industry is typically the last industry that Blumenthal and Markey would normally align with or do the bidding of, so their focus on Tesla is especially disappointing and ironic.
There are also some mistakes in Blumenthal and Markey’s letter based on incorrect references. For example, they use an apparently incorrect number for fatal crashes with Autopilot activated because they reference a Yahoo! article with incorrect data on that matter. If they are going to reference a specific number, they should get that from an official source (like NHTSA), not an incorrect claim in a Yahoo! article. Though, I think this is actually relevant to their efforts, so perhaps it’s good that it’s included. As noted above and below, I believe that Blumenthal and Markey have been misled by an anti-Tesla media obsession (which has several major causes, not the least of which is that there are trillions of dollars vested in fossil fuel companies that will suffer financially if not collapse the more Tesla achieves its mission*, and a tiny portion of that industry’s money goes toward seeding negative Tesla news coverage).
But we’re getting into the weeds, so before we get further in those weeds**, here are few key points about the core matter at hand according to Blumenthal and Markey’s letter:
1. It costs $10,000 to add the “Full Self-Driving” package to a Tesla car, and there are innumerable warnings for buyers and drivers. It’s hard to believe anyone would buy the package without reading what it can and cannot do. Right on Tesla’s order page where you decide whether to pay the $10,000 or not, here’s what Tesla tells you is included and how it warns you of the software suite’s current limitations:
Aside from the warnings about what FSD can and cannot do that you see when buying the $10,000 package, when you are driving the car and using these features, you get frequent, strong, unmistakable notifications and warnings about what the tech can do, what it can’t do, and the fact that you need to be constantly paying attention and ready to take over. I use this technology every day, and I find it mind boggling that some people think there aren’t ample warnings for the driver. I’ve driven other vehicles with similarly capable (but not as good) ADAS, and I found the warnings and notifications in those cars to be much weaker and more easily missed by a driver. Frankly, if you’re concerned about an ADAS being misleading or too subtle, then you should be calling for an industry-wide evaluation — not an investigation into one company that is actually leading the way on this.
2. When you buy the “Full Self-Driving” (FSD) package, the key thing you get is free/complementary updates to the car’s autonomous driving capabilities once Tesla is able to roll them out. This is primarily why people are dropping $10,000 on this package (or $6,000 at the time I bought it) — because we know that the system regularly gets improved via software updates. Naturally, highlighting that the system will be regularly improved inherently proves that people realize the system is not perfect today. If it didn’t need to be improved, why would regular updates be such a big deal? I’ve had my Model 3 for two years this week, and I’ve gotten several new features since buying it (automatic stopping at red lights and stop signs, Smart Summon, much improved automatic lane change and adaptive cruise control, etc.). I wouldn’t get most of those capabilities if I didn’t buy the FSD package. I wouldn’t have bought the FSD package if I didn’t know that it was going to be improved significantly in the coming years.
3. As Tesla rolls out new capabilities, the price of the “Full Self-Driving” package goes up. I bought the package for $6,000. It now costs $10,000. I knew this would happen. I knew the package wasn’t yet “robotaxi ready,” but that each significant step towards that goal would lead to an increase in the price of FSD, which would theoretically lead to an increase in the value of my car. Again, I find it dubious that someone would spend $6,000, or now $10,000, without learning these core basics of the company’s plans and policies. It would certainly be pretty dumb, in my opinion, to pay several thousand dollars just for the ability to automatically change lanes (back in 2019).
4. The name “Autopilot” comes from autopilot technology in airplanes and is completely logical for what it does in a Tesla. The idea that the word “Autopilot” is misleading is a bit confounding. Does anyone think an airplane flies itself without a pilot’s supervision just because it uses autopilot? If the concern is the prefix “auto,” is the term “automobile” misleading?
5. The new features of the “Full Self-Driving” package keep increasing safety. I think there is no question about it that my Tesla, like every other Tesla with the “Full Self-Driving” package, has the best advanced driver assistant system (ADAS) on the market. There is no system better at helping me to safely drive from point A to point B. That doesn’t mean it’s perfect or that I don’t have to monitor it! You’d have to be ignoring an enormous amount of communication from Tesla at the point of sale and every single time you use the car to think otherwise. There are constant reminders and warnings in the odd case that you didn’t know better before getting behind the wheel. But the key thing is that this system helps people to drive more safely and avoid accidents. That’s the point of it. Elon Musk has said repeatedly that Tesla’s #1 design priority is safety, and the results show that. Going after the leading ADAS on the market rather than plenty of other less safe systems with their own creative, inspiring branding makes no real sense. If you’re concerned about poor warnings, poor messaging, and dangerous implementation of an ADAS, go check out the various systems on the market and see which ones really do need to be improved.
One more thing. …
The attacks on Tesla Autopilot and FSD don’t come out of nowhere. Tesla was the most shorted stock on the whole stock market for much of the past several years. That means that more money was being bet on the stock going down in value than was being bet on any other stock. There’s plenty of evidence that some of these short sellers were actually trying to drive Tesla to bankruptcy. There’s also plenty of evidence that much of this money is covered in oil, or has some connection to the oil industry. Attacks on Tesla and some of its most appealing consumer tech often come from a deeply threatened oil industry.
Senators Blumenthal and Markey, you know how serious the climate crisis is and you’re two of the top climate hawks in Congress. Don’t let yourselves be tricked by the oil industry and do its bidding by attacking the company that is most quickly disentangling the chains of our oil dependence. Tesla is the top seller of oil-free 100% battery electric vehicles — or any kind of plugin vehicles — in the world! It has inspired and pressured pretty much every legacy automaker to try much harder and bring more compelling electric cars to market. Tesla is hastening the transition to clean, sustainable energy probably quicker than any other company on the planet — that’s its core mission. Slowing down its progress at the clever behest of the oil industry is counterproductive.
Also, for what it’s worth, I’m not that concerned about investigations into Autopilot and FSD marketing doing much. I think I offer a pretty good explanation above why it’s a case based on faulty premises and misguided concerns. However, I am concerned about political fallout on the Democratic side from these kinds of misguided “investigations” into Tesla (which, to be frank, are little more than public messaging attacks). There are not many companies that have such a strong, committed, focused following. Many Tesla fans do not take misguided attacks on the company well. CEO Elon Musk holds an enormous amount of influence over tens of millions of people who see him as the most important engineer, innovator, and businessman of the 21st century, if not beyond. Getting into a war of sorts with Musk and his fans is idiotic politically. It is one of the dumbest things you can do politically in 2021. This is one of the largest wedge issues/companies/people you can imagine. Don’t be blind to the reality of this societal moment due to some misleading articles, sneaky branding hit jobs, and one-sentence midnight tweets. We need more from you, because we know we can never get it from oil-soaked, coal-powdered Republicans in Congress. And I know that many Tesla fans who don’t follow politics closely will quickly go out and vote against their own broader self-interests and society’s interests over this single matter.
The biggest risk in this goodhearted but misguided effort is not that the NHTSA is going to all of a sudden think that Tesla is an evil company misleading consumers and shut it down — or require a small tweak in wording and notifications. The biggest risk comes from the backfire you and the rest of the Democratic Party are likely to suffer if you keep chasing these Tesla windmills like Don Quixote. Tesla doesn’t even produce windmills! It produces solar panels and electric cars that can drive on sunshine and wind.
* Tesla’s mission is to accelerate the transition to clean, sustainable energy. It is not just about the company succeeding, but about the company pushing the industry forward — which is clearly what has been happening for more than a decade, as the chairs and CEOs of companies like GM and Volkswagen have voluntarily admitted. The more that messaging campaigns can smear Tesla and slow its progress, the more they slow the transition to clean electric vehicles. This is specifically what many of these messaging wars are about at the core, and where negative media coverage stems, even if not obviously.
** Blumenthal and Markey state in their letter that “NHTSA also sent Mr. Musk a cease-and-desist letter in 2018 over his claims about the vehicles’ safety and, importantly, asked the FTC to investigate the claims under its ‘unfair or deceptive acts practices’ authority.” First of all, it’s important to note here that this doesn’t relate to Autopilot or FSD at all. Also, it’s important to look at the specifics of this case. The NHTSA thoroughly tests vehicles for the likelihood someone in the car gets injured in a crash. However, it only puts out generic rankings that go up to 5 stars. Many cars get a 5-star rating, but those cars do not all have an equal level of safety. Tesla shared the more detailed results of the Model 3’s, Model S’s, and Model X’s NHTSA evaluations, and also showed how those results related to the other best ratings on the market. Those vehicles were apparently #1, #2, and #3 among all tests conducted since 2011, with the Model 3 easily at #1. The issue, reportedly, is that the NHTSA doesn’t advertise those detailed results and that it didn’t want Tesla claiming to be #1 based on the detailed results, rather than just using the 5-star rating award that many others use. It seems to me that Tesla still uses this claim, so I assume they won in this debate.
Is Tesla — leading the industry in safety — really the company to go after with safety concerns?
Perhaps Blumenthal and Markey’s staff could spend more time trying to investigate oil-funded smear campaigns against electric vehicles and Tesla rather than inadvertently doing the oil industry’s bidding.
*** Related story: “Humanpilot” Was Super Deadly In 2020. From that story, a reader commenting underneath aptly notes:
“It is interesting that they are investigating Autopilot and not the state drivers license requirements which set a very low bar for driver training. No one ever talks about what a joke driver training is in the U.S. Since the feds supply so much grant money to the states for roads, they could easily lean on them for stricter licensing.” Indeed. That would be a worthy cause! Of course, it would also be an easy thing to attack politically.
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