Weekly Brief: Chief Twit’s Self-Driving Delusion Questioned

Tesla CEO Elon Musk completed his purchase of Twitter for $44Bn on Thursday.

The world’s richest man, who calls himself a “free speech absolutist” now controls one of the biggest social media sites in the world as “Chief Twit”, in addition to the most valuable carmaker. Within a day of completing the purchase, Musk fired Twitter’s chief executive officer Parag Agrawal, chief financial officer Ned Segal and chief of legal affairs Vijaya Gadde. Far right media pundits celebrated Musk’s arrival as the dawn of a new era when anything can be tweeted without filters or fear of being blocked from the platform, as President Donald Trump was following the January 6 attacks on the US capital. Musk has suggested that he will repeal safeguards and limits that Twitter had in place to avoid hate speech and false claims.

“Let the good times roll,” tweeted Musk on his first day in charge. Within hours, 50,000 tweets full of derogatory language flooded Twitter. The company claimed that they were sent by Twitter trolls trying to stir up controversy. The users have since been blocked, the company said, and none of its content policies have changed, despite what Musk has said publicly.

Those who follow Tesla closely will be familiar with this distinctly Muskian flavor of duplicity. He says his cars are capable of full self-driving, only for Tesla to clarify in fine print that drivers must be engaged at all times with their hands on the wheel. On a Tesla webcast last week, Musk said that when you drive a Tesla in full self-driving mode “you will almost never have to touch the vehicle controls” and swooned that his self-driving vehicle will soon be safer than cars with humans behind the wheel.

This makes for a great sound bite. More importantly, it’s enticing for an investor and, yet, it’s totally divorced from reality. Accomplishing full autonomy has proven far more complicated and time intensive than any rosy-eyed engineer or star-struck tech CEO ever thought. Deployments continue to limp along. Sure, Cruise now has a robo-taxi service in San Francisco but it’s riddled with problems, confounded by simple traffic situations and is only licensed to transport paying customers in the middle of the night. Waymo has only commercialized in a suburb of Phoenix. Investors are losing faith and start-ups are folding faster than pilots are expanding.

Last week Argo AI, once one of the richest self-driving start-ups, became the latest casualty. The company’s founders announced that the business is closing down owing to the fact that it can’t attract more investors and its two primary backers, Ford and Volkswagen, are no longer willing to dump cash into the endeavor. Some Argo employees will be integrated into VW and Ford teams working on advanced driver assistance systems. Ford took a $2.7Bn loss in the process. “Profitable, fully autonomous vehicles at scale are a long way off and we won’t necessarily have to create that technology for ourselves,” said Ford CEO Jim Farley on a call with investors.

However, Musk continues to tell the world that full self-driving Tesla cars are here (any day now) and their drivers and investors keep on believing him. Hence the reason Tesla is the most valuable carmaker in the world, which in turn is the reason that Musk is the world’s richest man, which in turn is the reason that he was able to toss $44Bn haphazardly at Twitter last week. The more bombastic and hyperbolic he becomes, the richer he seems to get.

That could soon change. Last week it came to light that Tesla is now allegedly under criminal investigation by the US Department of Justice for advertising FSD as more advanced than it is in practice, which led to 273 crashes involving Autopilot last year. Over a four-month period in 2021, The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that 11 people died in America during crashes in vehicles with active automated driving systems. Ten of those 11 deaths involved Tesla cars. Making exaggerated statements that lead investors to overvalue your company is one thing. Hyperbole that leads to deaths and an erosion of public safety is another, whether on the road or in the media.

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