Company insiders rip Tesla's stance on safety in hard-hitting Elon Musk doc

Russ Mitchell, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

If you own a Tesla, or a loved one does, or you're thinking about buying one, or you share public roads with Tesla cars, you might want to watch the new documentary "Elon Musk's Crash Course."

Premiering Friday on FX and Hulu, the 75-minute fright show spotlights the persistent dangers of Tesla’s automated driving technologies, the company’s lax safety culture, Musk’s P.T. Barnum-style marketing hype and the weak-kneed safety regulators who seem not to care.

Solidly reported and dead-accurate (I've covered the company since 2016 and can attest to its veracity), the project, part of the ongoing "New York Times Presents" series, may well become a historic artifact of the what-the-hell-were-they-thinking variety.

The central through line is the story of Joshua Brown, a rabid Tesla fan and derring-do techno-geek beheaded when his Autopilot-engaged Tesla drove itself at full speed on a Florida highway underneath the trailer of a semitruck in 2016.

Whatever lessons were learned at Tesla did not prevent an almost identical fatal crash, also in Florida, three years later. An unknown number of Autopilot-related crashes have occurred since — unknown to anyone but Tesla, which has the ability to track its cars through wireless connections — because the government's decades-old process for collecting crash statistics is unfit for the digital age. The company is currently under investigation by federal safety regulators for an apparent tendency to crash into emergency vehicles parked by the side of the highway.

Here are four more key takeaways from "Elon Musk's Crash Course."


1. Tesla's Autopilot feature did not receive adequate testing, ex-employees allege

The pressure to push Autopilot features out to customers fast, ready or not, was relentless, according to several former members of the Autopilot development team featured in the documentary. "There was no deep research phase" like at other driverless car companies, says one engineering program manager, with "customers essentially standing in for professional test drivers."

The testimony of these developers is a standout feature of "Crash Course." It's rare to hear from insiders at Tesla because "free-speech absolutist" Musk makes employees sign strict nondisclosure agreements and enforces them with a vast army of well-paid lawyers.

When Brown's car ran under the truck, the company said, the system mistook the side of the trailer for the bright sky, and blamed its camera provider. But inside Tesla, the Autopilot team was still struggling with how its software could distinguish a truck crossing a highway from an overhead bridge, says software engineer Raven Jiang: "The rate of learning wasn't great. It was personally hard for me to believe the promise was going to be lived up to."


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