Column

Starkman: Elon Musk's Self-Driving Snake Oil?

May 29, 2023, 2:27 PM

The writer, a Los Angeles freelancer and former Detroit News business reporter, blogs at Starkman Approved. This column first appeared on his blog. 

By Eric Starkman

A German publication has reaffirmed my view that Elon Musk is an ethically challenged individual who can’t be trusted and is unfit to sell automotive vehicles without adult supervision. While it is widely known that Musk for years exaggerated the capabilities of Tesla’s self-driving technology called Autopilot and that his claims are under criminal investigation, it appears Musk’s Autopilot BS was piled even higher than possibly even U.S. regulators and his critics realized.

The German newspaper Handelsblatt obtained a huge data dump based on a whistleblower’s leak of internal Tesla documents revealing Tesla’s strategy for minimizing reports and records of Tesla’s Autopilot technology. Veteran Los Angeles Times reporter Russ Mitchell, one of the few remaining reasons to subscribe to the ailing publication, posted an admirable synopsis of Handelsblatt’s report, which was published in German.

Notably, when confronted about the leak and the safety concerns, Handelsblatt reported that Tesla’s lawyers demanded the news organization send the company a copy of the data and delete all other copies and warned that Tesla would take legal action “for the theft of confidential and personal data.”

Not the response I’d expect from a company whose CEO maintains he is a “free speech absolutist.”

Tesla didn’t respond to Mitchell’s request for comment.

Handelsblatt received 100 gigabytes of data and 23,000 files including 3,000 entries about customers’ safety concerns and descriptions of more than 1,000 crashes. The complaints cover Teslas manufactured from 2015 to March 2022. The files contain more than 2,400 gripes about sudden acceleration and more than 1,500 complaints about braking problems, including unintentional emergency braking and so-called “phantom stops,” when the car suddenly brakes for no apparent reason.

Tesla judiciously avoids responding to customer complaints in writing. Handelsblatt reported that Tesla has “precise guidelines” for communicating with customers. Employees are instructed that unless lawyers are involved, they should not send written versions of their reviews but pass them on “VERBALLY to the customer.”

“Do not copy and paste the report below into an email, text message, or leave it in a voicemail to the customer,” the guidelines say.

arsTechnica

“They never sent emails, everything was always verbal,” Handelsblatt quoted a California doctor, who said her Tesla accelerated on its own in the fall of 2021 and crashed into two concrete pillars.

Mitchell predicted that Handelsblatt’s reporting could play a role in existing wrongful death lawsuits filed against Tesla alleging fundamental safety problems with its self-driving technology and could prompt state and federal regulators to finally take action. I’m less sanguine, as the NHTSA is grossly underfunded and understaffed and Musk somehow almost always prevails in lawsuits filed against him.

That’s not the case In China, a country for which Musk understandably has nothing but high praise since it accounts for more than half of Tesla’s sales. The communist country’s no nonsense regulators two years ago forced Tesla to publicly apologize for its arrogance and handling of customer complaints alleging defective workmanship. China’s regulators earlier this month forced Tesla to issue an urgent software update on almost every vehicle it has sold in that country to address problems with unintended sudden acceleration.

One person who likely won’t be surprised with Handelsblatt’s disclosures is Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, who essentially called Musk a liar in a CNBC interview earlier this year.

Wozniak said Musk misled him and his family into thinking that a Tesla would be fully self-driving by the end of 2016 and capable of driving itself across the country. He said that even after investing $50,000 to upgrade his Tesla’s cameras and sensors, the vehicle’s self-driving technology was problem prone.

“It makes mistakes all the time,” Wozniak told CNBC. “It’s a horrible, frightening experience.”

Musk isn’t alone prematurely hyping autonomous driving.

More than a year ago, GM CEO Mary Barra posted on LinkedIn that her Cruise driverless taxi company was “on the cusp of commercialization.” That’s proven to be a deception that did Musk proud.

San Francisco’s traffic engineers last October submitted a scathing 39-page letter to the NHTSA warning that Cruise’s autonomous vehicles were wreaking havoc on city streets and were so problem plagued they “could quickly exhaust emergency response resources and could undermine public confidence in all automated driving technology.”

NBC News recently aired a segment highlighting  safety issues Cruise and Google’s Waymo driverless taxis are causing in San Francisco and featured a fire chief who said on camera that self-driving technology “is not ready for prime time.” Wired reported last month that surveillance videos it obtained through public records requests indicate that Cruise and Waymo taxis are causing more problems than have been publicly disclosed.

Meanwhile, Ford has alienated its customers with the surging subscription price of its hands-free driving, known as Ford BlueCruise.

The Detroit Free Press’ Phoebe Wall Howard reported yesterday that Ford customers are seething about the automaker’s decision to quadruple the price of BlueCruise to $800 annually, or $75 for a monthly subscription. Customers previously paid $200 annually. Wall Howard published angry comments posted on macheforum.com, an online gathering place for owners of Ford’s electric Mustang, which the company proudly assembles and ships from Mexico.

  • “I am a big, big fan of BC. Big fan … Except at $800/yr. They can take a walk with that nonsense,” said a May 5 post from Livonia, Michigan.
  • “This is a non-starter. Seriously, just the offer is an insult to your customers and is a stain on the customer relationship. You have to do better,” said a May 17 post from Indiana.
  • “For me, $800/year would mean all of the savings from not having to do oil changes and other maintenance would be erased,” said a May 17 post from Colorado.
  • “Ford really stubbed their toe with this announcement … What Ford has put on the block as a subscribable service is not that important to people just yet. It may be there in three years, which might be what they are betting on,” said a May 20 post from Pennsylvania.
  • “You are going to be sorry unless you make a course correction on this … I own a Job 1 Mach-E, a Lightning, AND a ’22 Lincoln Corsair GT,” said a May 25 post from Ohio.

“Ford, like a lot of automakers, has this long-term aspiration of making all sorts of money through technology and subscription models,” Karl Brauer, executive analyst at iSeeCars.com, told Wall Howard. “You can’t get much money out of selling an electric car but maybe you can make up for it by selling subscription services to people driving these cars. That’s what they’re thinking across the planet at the corporate level. And they think people are used to fees, but they’re used to just $10 to $20 a month.”

Free Press reader who posted under the name Mathew A offered an insightful comment about where the U.S. automotive industry is headed:

“Quite similar to when airlines started charging for everything. After a while, people will throw in the towel and just start paying. The auto companies have become as greedy as the airlines. I can just see it, “You want to use those windshield wipers?” — that will be $3 for each stroke.”

Reach the writer at eric@starkmanapproved.com. Confidentiality is assured.


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