Mind Matters Natural and Artificial Intelligence News and Analysis
Handsome bearded African man touches the touchscreen in his new high-tech electric vehicle while while talking by phone and smiling. Self driving vehicle concept
Photo licensed via Adobe Stock

New York Times Documentary Takes on Musk’s “Self-Driving” Claims

In an era where Big Media tend to just play along with Big Tech hype and vaporware, a Season 2 film homes in for a closer look

The New York Times has a new TV show through FX Networks, called The New York Times Presents, a series of standalone documentaries presented by journalists from the paper.

Mind Matters News readers will likely take a special interest in the first documentary of Season 2 because it deals with the technology of self-driving cars at Tesla and we have been talking about these issues for years. The film, titled Elon Musk’s Crash Course, follows the development of Tesla Motors and its claims about full self-driving vehicles. On the whole, while the I can commend the documentary as one of the first large-scale media efforts to take the issues with Tesla self-driving cars seriously, overall it emphasizes the wrong issues.

At the beginning, Elon Musk is portrayed as a visionary leader — he see the future coming long before it gets here and acts accordingly. Musk believed in the ubiquity of the Internet before everyone had yet gotten on board and he believed in electric vehicles long before anyone took them seriously. His embrace of self-driving cars is a natural extension of his personality and the main thrust of the documentary is that being “ahead of your time,” while it may be an asset in Silicon Valley, is actually a problem when it comes to roads.

The documentary makes three major points about Tesla and Elon Musk. First, Elon seems to say whatever works in the moment — and that changes frequently. He does not hold himself to any of his past statements. Here at Mind Matters News, we have documented that fact extensively. At one moment he and/or Tesla says that the driver is only in the car for regulatory reasons and at the next moment he says that drivers must keep their hands on the wheels at all times. The second criticism is that Musk does not play nice with regulators, despite claiming that safety is his top priority. The third criticism, which is the one most emphasized in the documentary, is that Tesla does not do enough to prevent “predictable abuse.” In other words, Tesla, in its official fine print, is clear about the limits of the system but has often failed to actively prevent people from using the system in ways that are outside the official specification.

Several points were briefly mentioned but deserve more attention. First of all, the name of the system that is sold by Tesla is “Full Self-Driving.” Whether Tesla’s driver assistance program does enough to ensure that users aren’t using it inappropriately is debatable. But calling a system that in no way, shape, or form takes full control of your vehicle “Full Self-Driving” and then blaming users for accidents is unconscionable. Musk did all he could to egg on this perception of his vehicles through his hype of the “Tesla Network” — the idea that you would be able to allow your Tesla to be used as a taxi while you were sleeping. In fact, he said that Teslas should be considered “appreciating assets.” because of the value that this network will bring people. That is a highly misleading characterization of where Tesla is now and will be in the foreseeable future.

Woman passenger sitting in the backseat and  selects a route when her self-driving car rides on the highway.

While the documentary mentioned in passing that some of his more extreme announcements were possibly opportunistic, it didn’t delve into specifics, and some of these specifics are important. Many of the grandest claims about self-driving vehicles were made when the company was seeking money from investors. He did the same thing when he needed to justify the takeover of his cousin’s failing solar company, Solar City, by making public presentations of “solar roof tiles” that didn’t yet exist in any usable form.

Musk has been the master of manipulating public perception for personal benefit. However, when it comes to highway safety, the victims aren’t just his customers and investors, but the public at large.

What the documentary seemed to leave out completely is the question of whether self-driving vehicles are even possible. All of the participants in the documentary seemed to share a belief that this technology would be with us “some day,” whether that is today or a time in the far future. Here at Mind Matters News, we have long noted that this is due to a widely shared misunderstanding of the human mind. and its relationship to the social aspects of driving.

To make autonomous vehicles work, we must reshape the public infrastructure so that it is more in line with standardized protocols than familiar social cues. Continuing to misunderstand this point will lead to both continued waste in the development of technology in the wrong direction and, potentially, continued tragedy as people go on pushing technologies that don’t really work.

Note: The series originally started life as a podcast in 2017, called The Daily. In 2019, The Daily. spun off a weekly series with FX Networks called The Weekly. Then, in 2020, The Weekly was rebranded into the current series, The New York Times Presents, which is available for streaming on Hulu.

You may also wish to read: Guess what? You already own a “self-driving” car. Tech hype hits the stratosphere. (Jonathan Bartlett)

Jonathan Bartlett

Senior Fellow, Walter Bradley Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Jonathan Bartlett is a senior software R&D engineer at Specialized Bicycle Components, where he focuses on solving problems that span multiple software teams. Previously he was a senior developer at ITX, where he developed applications for companies across the US. He also offers his time as the Director of The Blyth Institute, focusing on the interplay between mathematics, philosophy, engineering, and science. Jonathan is the author of several textbooks and edited volumes which have been used by universities as diverse as Princeton and DeVry.

New York Times Documentary Takes on Musk’s “Self-Driving” Claims