Weekly Brief: Delusional Musk Won’t Stop the Virus-Savvy Innovators

After a month of stalled assembly lines and shuttered factories, the North American automotive industry is coming back to life.

Carmakers began to reopen their factories last week as states relaxed their stay-at-home orders. Michigan gave the Big Three the green light to restart production Monday, May 11 but most factories will reopen today, May 18, or in the coming week. Fiat Chrysler, General Motors, Ford, Volvo, Subaru, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Honda and Hyundai-Kia have all swung back into action. Only Volkswagen and Nissan are yet to announce when their factories will reopen because of ongoing uncertainty around supplier readiness. Mexico announced that carmakers and their suppliers will be able to restart production south of the border from today also.

Naturally, Elon Musk found a way to make this about himself. The freewheeling Tesla CEO has been a coronavirus skeptic from the start. He has shared hosts of misleading, dubious and debunked information on his Twitter feed and has graced us with brilliant insights such as “the coronavirus panic is dumb”. His frustration with California’s stay-at-home orders escalated as he filed a lawsuit against the county of Alameda for its ongoing health restrictions. He threatened to move his company’s headquarters and factories out of California altogether. Then, in his boldest stroke yet, he reopened his Fremont facility last week without permission and tweeted heroically: “If anyone is arrested, I ask that it only be me.”

It fits the mold. Musk is as skeptical of the coronavirus, which has now killed nearly 90,000 Americans and more than 300,000 people worldwide, as he is of safety precautions for self-driving cars. If the CEO had his way, every Tesla on the road would already be fully autonomous. He recently said that his company’s autonomous platform Autopilot AI is “quite literally orders of magnitude” more advanced than anything else on the market. There’s no doubt that it’s advanced. There’s also no doubt that it is the only consumer-facing autonomous technology that has directly led to driver fatalities. Five of them to be specific. Tesla is now being sued in the US District Court of Northern California because a Tesla Model X allegedly killed a pedestrian while in Autopilot mode.

Tesla will mount its usual defense: the driver of a Tesla is fully responsible for his or her vehicle, even when Autopilot is engaged. Musk will presumably deflect responsibility in a similar fashion if a coronavirus outbreak ensues at one of his factories. That’s not leadership, it’s cowardice.

More importantly, it’s a failure to recognize the fact that coronavirus is not “dumb” or merely a blip from which we will all return to normal. Like or not, this pandemic is a world-altering event. It’s not yet over nor is it likely to be over anytime soon. It has laid bare how susceptible humanity is to mass outbreaks in a global world, how poorly prepared we are for to confront them, and how our routines and economic well-being can be unmoored in a matter of months.

This is scary. It’s also an opportunity. Those automakers that recognize how society is likely to shift in the coming years in response to COVID-19, and even better those automakers that lead the way in that transition with better designs and more sanitary, streamlined manufacturing, will reap the benefits. No matter what Elon Musk thinks of it.

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