Over the past decade of covering the electric vehicle industry, it’s unfortunately not hyperbole that I almost never see an electric vehicle (EV) story in a large mainstream media outlet that isn’t rife with problems. All kinds of errors and bias are abundant in such pieces. Frankly, CleanTechnica has been so successful in large part because of how poor cleantech coverage is at such outlets. So, when I saw the Washington Post (WaPo) piece “Tesla test drivers believe they’re on a mission to make driving safer for everyone. Skeptics say they’re a safety hazard.” on Google News this evening, I can’t say I was expecting much. I was positively surprised.
What WaPo Did Well
As someone who has “Tesla Full Self Driving (FSD) Beta” access and who has corrected the record on badly informed or misleading press coverage of Tesla since 2012, I was surprised to see that I found almost nothing to correct or alter in the story. There is one line that jumped out at me that needed some improvement*, but the overall explanation of the following was well informed:
- How Tesla FSD Beta works.
- The basic evolution of Tesla Autopilot.
- The aim of Tesla FSD — the finished product. (Though, this could have been expounded on, and I’ll come back to that.)
- Concerns and hopes regarding Tesla FSD.
The writers of the piece either have driven Tesla vehicles extensively themselves or are very good listeners and reporters, in my humble opinion.
Additionally, WaPo interviewed several FSD Beta users, not just one or two, and it seems to aim was to make sure to truly understand the system and the people using it. The outlet also secured an interview with a former Autopilot engineer who is using FSD Beta — great get!
What WaPo Could Have Done Better
The WaPo writers and editors faced a rather gargantuan task — trying to summarize a bunch of issues, including some that entail tremendous nuance and others that involve deep-tech debates, to a readership that probably has little exposure to the subject matter. I don’t envy the task. At the end of the day, people reading the story are going to read it with different colored glasses based on preconceived notions of Elon Musk and Tesla and not everything will be perfectly understood in the context of what was not written. And you can’t expect the WaPo to write an encyclopedia of Tesla for this story. Unfortunately, looking at the comments under the article, I do think some important context was lacking.
For one, and I’m not saying I would have thought to include this in the piece without seeing the feedback, it might have been useful to point out Tesla’s historical safety obsession. There could have been a greater emphasis on Tesla producing the safest cars in history and Elon Musk’s aim to dramatically cut into the nearly unfathomable number of deaths that occur every year from drowsy driving, reckless driving, drunk driving, texting while driving, and simply human error. (This was mentioned, with a great stat for driving home the point, but the mention was probably too brief and narrow to communicate important context to readers.) Shameless plug because I think it’s genuinely useful for context:
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) October 10, 2021
One area that was also lacking was a bit of an explanation of why this stage of FSD development is seen as so important, and that the fundamental aim of taking this approach is to solve the problems or edge cases of general self-driving capability as quickly and effectively as possible in order to minimize total net traffic deaths over time. The point is not to just go fast and break things, the aim is not to roll out robotaxis in a few markets at a time, and the goal is certainly not to get rich and famous. (Been there, done that.) The aim — I’ll repeat — is clearly to develop FSD in as ideal a way as possible to reduce traffic deaths as much as possible over time.
It would surely be beyond the scope of the article to compare and contrast self-driving development techniques of Tesla versus Waymo versus Cruise versus Zoox versus Intel, but a bit more could have been put into explaining that the approach Tesla FSD Beta is taking is aimed at solving problems the others have not been able to solve, and to create a super safe self-driving solution that can be used “anywhere” (let’s not get into the nuance of USA versus India, but you get the point … I hope).
It’s Up For Debate Whether Tesla’s FSD Approach Is Good or Bad
Without a doubt, one of the hottest and most important debates in tech is who has the best approach to self-driving vehicle development and who will “win” the race to mass-market robotaxis. Many Tesla fans are convinced Tesla has the right approach, and as the article points out, are happy to help move the tech along. Furthermore, if Tesla does crack the code, no one is really close behind it in this avenue, so it would effectively end up with a rather ridiculous monopoly on world-changing tech and would stimulate a world record in the number of tweets that said “I told you so.” Those who think Tesla has the wrong approach of course see this stage of development is stupid, reckless, and potentially illegal.
I would just like to emphasize that no one actually knows which side is right. Many people are convinced they know and would like to convince you that they know, but they don’t. We are too far from “problem solved” or “ready for mass robotaxi use” for anyone to be certain that the path is clear. At the same time, anyone convinced that it’s impossible for Tesla’s approach to work should remember the phrase “never say never” and also look at the trail of humble pies eaten by industry experts who claimed Elon Musk’s companies could never achieve something. Or just look at Tesla’s history of achieving the impossible.
That said, regarding the latter, the WaPo article points out something that many Tesla fans and shareholders (myself included) would probably prefer to ignore. While Tesla has a history of achieving “impossible” production, vehicle-spec, vehicle-development, and financial targets (which the WaPo article didn’t mention), the FSD goals have been very much off. The article writes, “In 2019, Musk boldly promised that the company’s cars would have the capability of driving themselves — turning Teslas into a fleet of 1 million ‘robotaxis’ by 2020.” There’s also an autonomous LA–NYC trip that never materialized. For critics, these missed targets can be associated with some of Elon’s tweets about COVID-19, the following probably being the most infamous and shocking (including at the time it was made):
In short: it is not clear yet if Tesla FSD will deliver the goods (mass-market robotaxis) or not, but if Tesla delivers, it will be one of the most transformational accomplishments in tech history (and will have much broader ramifications).
The Responses, Though …
After being very pleased with the article’s clarity, attention to detail, lack of misinformation, and effectiveness at communicating different angles of the story, I have to say that I was disappointed when I went into the comments. I will just critique a few of these to show what I am talking about.
“the car performs more than 90 percent of the driving flawlessly”.It’s that other ten percent that will kill you (or someone else).
Of course, this user used some exaggeration here, but there were many comments like this, and I think there could be an assumption that if the tech isn’t perfect, it will kill a lot of people. In actuality, most problems are small. As far as the challenge of bigger problems, ideally, drivers should be attentively fixing any issues that arise. That said, the debate about whether it’s safe enough to put into the hands of customers is honestly a fair debate, as there are indeed some instances that could lead to accidents if the driver is a bit too slow to react (like sudden braking when a car is fairly close behind you). I personally don’t use FSD Beta much when other cars are very near or in certain situations due to its “glitches” and my awareness of proper defensive driving techniques and the limitations of human reaction.
Self-driving cars are a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.
There were various versions of this, and they were all disappointing to see. The ideal is very clearly to solve the problem of many deaths and injuries caused by car accidents. Cars aren’t going away, but making them safer could protect many lives. Plus, the article did state the problem clearly: “For Tesla’s willing guinea pigs, the promise of Full Self-Driving, even if risky and unproven, offers an immediate antidote to traffic monotony and a glimmer of hope for safer roads, where 20,000 Americans died in the first half of 2021 alone, an 18 percent surge.”
There were also less blatant issues with some of the conclusions. By far the most common one seemed to be that many people assumed that Tesla FSD Beta users get nothing out of having FSD Beta (again, I am one of those people). Only a few thousand people probably have FSD Beta at the moment. Given that this is such critical technology (whether it works or fails), having personal insights into how good it is and how well it is developing could be useful for investment decisions, and I assume most of those people are Tesla [NASDAQ:TSLA] shareholders (disclosure: I am a TSLA shareholder). Also, many people greatly value being on the cutting edge of tech.
Tech Writers I’d Hire
Wrapping up back where I started, the refreshing thing about the WaPo article from my perspective was that it was an accurate, fair, seemingly unbiased representation of where we are with Tesla FSD. We could use a lot more of that. I’d certainly hire the writers of the piece if I could offer them better pay and benefits that the Washington Post.
*One line I would have written differently is this one: “Safety experts and autonomous driving companies say the decision to do so is reckless and shortsighted….” Better phrasing would be: “Some safety experts and competing autonomous driving companies using different approaches say the decision to do so is reckless and shortsighted….”