by Chris White
Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk accused the media of “killing people” for covering a string of wrecks and one death related to the company’s self-driving feature.
“You need to think carefully about this,” Musk told a slew of reporters during phone conference Wednesday. “Because if, in writing some article that’s negative, you effectively dissuade people from using an autonomous vehicle, you’re killing people.”
The technology guru stated that 600,000 people die a year from vehicle wrecks because of human error — the death toll could be mitigated, according to Musk, if Tesla’s autonomous driving application were made widely available.
The new technology can’t catch on, he added, if the media are constantly haranguing his company for each wreck or death related to the Model S’ self-driving feature.
Tesla’s self-driving technology is actually safer than humans-operated vehicles, Musk claimed during the phone conference announcing the move to affix the electric automaker’s vehicles with the autonomous driving feature.
Musk’s decision to make the self-driving feature prominent in all vehicles comes at an awkward time, as Tesla is still resolving a public relation nightmare after two people died behind the wheel of their Teslas.
A Dutchman was killed in September after his Tesla Model S smashed into a tree, forcing firefighters to wait several hours before removing his body for fear of electrocution. The wait time was due in large part to the car’s broken lithium battery.
The man’s death came a handful of months after Tesla owner Joshua Brown died in June when his Model S caromed into a tractor-trailer on a highway. Eyewitness reports indicate Brown was watching a “Harry Potter” movie at the time of the accident.
Analysts chided Musk’s insistence that the self-driving feature works fine and that no further investigations are needed into the company’s technology.
“We find this announcement surprising given increased scrutiny following the Autopilot crash,” UBS analysts wrote in a Thursday research note. “Adding these capabilities too early and without enough testing could have negative long term consequences to adoption given the headline risk of AV crashes.”
Analysts have begun reconsidering whether Tesla’s self-driving feature is even safe, thanks in part to the wrecks and the overall glitches in Musk’s technology
“The expectation of Tesla is that the driver is alert and vigilant, ready to take over at a moment’s notice,” Ryan Eustice, a professor of engineering at the University of Michigan tasked with researching Toyota’s autonomous vehicle project, told reporters in July.
He added: “In practice, however, we see that humans quickly become bored and place too much trust in the system. People let down their guard and are not attentive and ready to take over.”
Bryant Walker Smith, a professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law, who has spent his career studying semi-autonomous technology like that used by Tesla, echoed Eustice’s sentiments, telling reporters that Tesla owners will likely have to decide between safety and convenience.