Discover more from The AP (Alex Pareene) Newsletter
Losing a Street Fight to Elon Musk
I'm not saying this is the reason you can play video games while driving a Tesla, I'm just saying this is one reason a sociopath might allow you to play video games while driving a Tesla
The New York Times has recently (and laudably) focused some attention on safety decisions made by the electric vehicle manufacturer Tesla. A Monday story focused on the company’s “Autopilot” autonomous driving feature, which is, bluntly, not very good. Despite this, Elon Musk regularly over-promises about the feature’s capabilities, and essentially allows Tesla owners to beta test it on public streets. Autopilot is not very good in part because of design and engineering decisions made by Tesla’s CEO. Specifically, Musk—against the advice of many of his engineers—decided his company’s cars would handle autonomous driving solely with cameras, and without radar or other sensors commonly used by Tesla’s competitors in the space.
The Times paints Musk’s decision as, alternately, a cost-saving measure to avoid the expense of additional sensors or an aesthetic objection to their inclusion in his vehicles. But neither quite seems sufficient to explain why he would, as the Times puts it, take his company’s self-driving program “in directions other automakers were unwilling to take this kind of technology.”
A Times story published the next day concerned an even odder decision made by Tesla. It now allows drivers to play video games while driving, on an enormous touchscreen on the car’s dashboard. This feature expanded quietly via a software update sent to most Teslas this year1. The Times notes, once again, that nearly all of Tesla’s competitors, for safety reasons and to avoid liability, do basically the opposite of what Tesla does. Many of them disallow certain actions on in-car touchscreens when the car is in motion. Other driver-assist modes use infrared cameras to monitor whether drivers are looking at the road or not. “The National Transportation Safety Board recommended that Tesla add an infrared camera to improve driver monitoring, but the company has not done so.” Odd.
The exaggerated claims about the capabilities of Autopilot, the in-car distractions, and the indifference to safety features other manufacturers include have already contributed to a body count. “The combination of hands-free driving and drivers’ looking away from the road has been connected to at least 12 traffic deaths since 2016 in Tesla cars that were operating in Autopilot mode,” the Times points out, citing the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Throughout these stories, safety experts and engineers seem a little baffled as to why, exactly, Tesla would do such flagrantly dangerous things. As the head of the National Transportation Safety Board tells the Times: “We’re trying to warn the public and tell Tesla, ‘Hey, you need to put some safeguards in.’ But they haven’t.”
One thing to remember about autonomous driving is that it’s the most overhyped technology of our era and it will likely never “work.” That is, it will likely never do what its proponents have spent years claiming it will be able to do very shortly: Fully replace human drivers on our current streets in all contexts. Assisted driving works well enough on grade-separated, well-maintained roads (though its requirement that the driver remain vigilant still makes it a touch absurd). Fully automated driving on America’s actually existing city streets is about as far away as the singularity. After years of hype and millions of dollars invested, the people who were supposed to usher in the age of self-driving cars are finally starting to admit all of this.
Given what we now know about the limits of automated driving, why might a car manufacturer continue to overhype its capabilities, introduce it to urban roads that it's particularly unsuited for, and intentionally remove safeguards against its well-documented limitations? They may want the fully automated driving future to come into existence even with the full knowledge that the technology doesn’t work. If you were a renegade automaker who is both aware of the actual history of American urban transportation and something of a sociopath, the fact that autonomous driving is clearly unsafe might actually present an opportunity.
A car manufacturer could make a bet that by intentionally making his vehicles more dangerous, particularly to people outside of them, regulators and states and municipalities will respond not by punishing his massively over-valued company but instead by attempting to further limit opportunities for Teslas to come into contact with non-drivers. That is, by walling off the streets, giving more space to cars, and making all roads more freeway-like. A true believer might come to think that causing more mayhem will only accelerate the speed with which this transformation takes place. One reason to make that bet is because it is essentially what happened with automobiles themselves.
If you asked the typical American to picture city streets prior to the mass popularization of private automobile use, they might think of them as basically the same but with horses and carriages instead of cars. In fact, as historian Peter D. Norton explains in his book Fighting Traffic, at the beginning of the 20th century the American city street was understood to be a public place shared by pedestrians, electrified streetcars, and other pre-automobile modes of transportation. “Motorists who ventured into city streets in the first quarter of the twentieth century were expected to conform to the street as it was,” he writes. A place, in other words, where children played in the streets and people walked wherever they chose.
Because of the unique dangers the car posed to others, especially pedestrians and children, it was originally treated as an outside invader and a menace. Newspapers covered each pedestrian death as a scandal. Then, as people began contemplating actual concrete ways to restrict automobile usage in cities, the auto industry and its allies quickly organized a massive counter-campaign. They invented, and cities quickly criminalized, “jaywalking.” In a few short years, industry definitively won out over the safety of children and everyone else. “The car had already cleaned up its once bloody reputation in cities,” Norton writes, “less by killing fewer people than by enlisting others to share in the responsibility for the carnage.” What happened next? “Engineers said they could rebuild cities to accommodate cars, and they were already breaking ground.”
The street and the city were transformed, the freedoms of everyone else curtailed and their health endangered, for the sake of a valuable and growing American industry. If you know that history, might you think it could repeat itself? And then might you start thinking of ways to hasten that process?
Other figures in the push for autonomous vehicles, perhaps unfamiliar with that history, already openly bandy about ideas for how we might come to “share” space with vehicles that are incapable of safely responding to unpredictable and improvisational usage of inconsistently maintained streets. They have suggested things like…walling off sidewalks, as the Times reported in a 2019 story that inadvertently echoed the history of the invention of jaywalking: “One solution, suggested by an automotive industry official, is gates at each corner, which would periodically open to allow pedestrians to cross.”
So. While other manufacturers of partially autonomous automobiles focus on safety features and carefully note the limits of their systems, Tesla rushes to market with false promises of full self-driving and makes seemingly baffling decisions around the safety of its system. I do not claim that Elon Musk actually wants his cars to kill a bunch of people, especially pedestrians. That would, after all, be a very irresponsible thing to say about an impossibly wealthy man. I will say that Elon Musk's cars killing a lot of people, especially pedestrians, could turn out to work enormously in Elon Musk's favor, and while that is a risky bet, Elon Musk is the type of person who can’t imagine losing.
“The struggle for the future of urban transportation,” Norton writes, “was less a contest between vehicles than a competition for their urban medium: The street.” I think Elon Musk, a man who pretends not to understand a lot of things, understands that better than most.
This piece originally, per the Times story, said the summer update allowed Tesla drivers to play games in moving vehicles. CNBC’s Lora Kolodny alerted me to her reporting that Tesla allowed drivers to play games in moving vehicles before that summer update, with Musk mentioning chess in a February “Joe Rogan Experience” interview.