You could be forgiven for believing that we’ve already achieved the era of autonomous vehicles. Tesla, the electric car manufacturer run by Elon Musk, refers to a version of its Autopilot software as “Full Self Driving”. The company released a (misleadingly edited) video of an autonomous vehicle navigating city streets, its drivers’ hands on their lap – a style replicated by enthusiasts. Musk has repeatedly assured in speeches and interviews that autonomous vehicles were one to two years away – or, as he put it in 2015, a “solved problem” because “we know what to do and we’ll be there in a few years. ” But the existing Autopilot technology has not yet realized those promises and, as a new New York Times documentary illustrates, the gap in expectation and reality has led to several deadly crashes.
Elon Musk’s Crash Course, the latest installment in the Times’s deal with FX on Hulu, is not a documentary on Elon Musk, per se. The 75-minute film from producer and director Emma Schwartz focuses specifically on Autopilot, which Musk announced in 2014 and has long billed as the key to an imminent, but as yet unreached, future of self-driving cars. As Musk, the richest man in the world, mulls taking over Twitter, the film redirects attention to longstanding problems at the company arguably most associated with his name and leadership of him. Through interviews with several former Tesla employees and federal regulators, the film argues that Musk oversold the capability of Autopilot, which Tesla first deployed in 2015, and dangerously lulled consumers into a false sense of security with promises of full self-driving.
What do we learn from this film? The answer is nothing new if you’ve been paying attention, which is admittedly difficult due to the sheer number of Musk ventures and self-perpetuating cycles of coverage. Like the series’ previous episodes on Britney Spears’s conservatorship and the public shaming of Janet Jackson post-Nipplegate, Elon Musk’s Crash Course is more cogent synthesis and assemblage of ample archival material (Musk, we are reminded, has been building his impish genius media image for over two decades) than new investigation. The film builds around the work of two Times journalists, Cade Metz and Neal Boudette, who have reported on Musk’s grandiose visions for Tesla for years, and elucidates the troubling disconnect between Musk’s assurances and Autopilot’s current functioning.
The film opens with 911 calls from the grisly scene of Joshua Brown’s death in May 2016. A 40-year-old former military man and Tesla enthusiast, Brown was driving his Tesla Model S with Autopilot on a Florida highway when his car plowed underneath a left-turning tractor-trailer, shearing off the roof and killing him instantly. Musk and Tesla have long maintained that the company’s Autopilot system – in the fine print, a driver’s assistance system recommended for use on divided highways – makes its vehicles safer than standard cars. (Car crashes kill about 40,000 people in the US each year.) But Brown was the first of several fatal accidents involving Autopilot, bringing scrutiny to the technology’s capability and the company’s role in encouraging distracted driving. (Musk did not respond to numerous interview requests, according to the film.)
Subsequent investigations concluded that Autopilot – which at the time relied on cameras and radar but not Lidar, the system of light detection and ranging used by most other manufacturers – couldn’t differentiate between perpendicular trucks and overhead bridges. Brown’s Tesla mistook one for the other and did n’t brake, causing his death from him. A National Transportation Safety Board investigation into the crash ruled Tesla’s system safeguards were “lacking” and that Autopilot’s “operational design” was a contributing factor because it allowed drivers to avoid steering and to ignore the road for periods of time “inconsistent” with warnings from Tesla. The board found Autopilot operated as designed, but that the company had not adequately advised consumers on how to use it, thus fostering an “over-reliance on vehicle automation”.
Three of Brown’s friends testify in the film to his enthusiasm for incipient technology and new gadgets; he wanted to be on the cutting edge of technology. The film argues that an extrapolation of that worldview at large – the belief that technology can shift global paradigms, that wildly ambitious vision can achieve almost impossible ends – undergirds Tesla and Musk’s approach to the controversy, which is: double down on the mission. Tesla has since abandoned radar in its Autopilot feature, instead relying solely on cameras, which Musk has long touted as the best approach, likening them to human eyes. Numerous Tesla engineers have called that approach deeply flawed or, at best, still in development. Akshat Patel, an autopilot engineering program manager at Tesla from 2014 to 2015, tells the film-makers that Tesla is using its customers in place of professional test drivers.
“Elon Musk has a very specific way of motivating people,” JT Stukes, a former Tesla project engineer, says in the film. “He would say really cool things, science fiction things, and he would make you believe that you could do it.”
Musk’s stature as the world’s richest man and trollish celebrity with a devout following is inextricable from his companies, and thus the film briefly skims over the building blocks of Musk’s mythos – his childhood as a bullied nerd in apartheid South Africa, starting his first company Zip2 in 1995, selling PayPal to eBay for $1.5bn and starting SpaceX in 2002, and taking over as CEO of Tesla in 2008. (Tesla’s co-founder Marc Tarpenning, who pitched the concept of an electric car company to Musk, appears in the film and testifies to Musk’s ambition.) The film understandably, as it changes by the hour, does not mention Musk’s embroiled effort to take Twitter private.
There’s a brief section on the intense fandom Musk cultivates: snapshots of his tweets and a clip from his 2018 interview with divisive podcaster Joe Rogan (in which he somewhat infamously smoked a joint) act as signal flares to the online Musk skeptics, but there is no mention of his ex-wives, celebrity dating life or, you know, his secret baby with musician Grimes. The film is less analysis of Musk’s celebrity than deep dive into one troubling aspect of his career, a reminder of longstanding issues with his leadership.
We have not arrived at the horizon of fully self-driving cars; we may not for several more years or, as Boudette proposes, perhaps even decades. Elon Musk’s Crash Course is not so much concerned with the heyday of autonomous vehicles as the information we have now – a counterbalance to Musk’s wild visions for the future through a sobering, tightly edited capsule of his spotty record of him in the present.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism