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Musk Fires Back Over ‘Super Messed Up’ Crash Coverage

A Tesla driver distracted by her phone crashed into a fire truck and suffered a broken ankle. That this is even news has CEO Elon Musk on the defensive, stirring up even more headlines.

Like Howard Beale in Network, Elon Musk is mad as hell at the media and he’s and he’s not going to take it anymore. The Tesla Motors founder and CEO used Twitter to air his grievances over the coverage of the latest crash in involving a semi-autonomous Model S.

A woman in South Jordan, Utah inadvertently rammed her black Model S into a fire department truck stopped at a red light at a speed of 60 mph. The Autopilot system, which uses sensors to assist in detecting nearby objects, was engaged, though drivers are required to always pay attention. The 28-year-old woman later admitted that she was looking at her phone at the time of the crash.

 The car’s hood crumpled to about half its original length, but the woman suffered only a broken ankle, according to South Jordan police Sgt. Samuel Winkler.

Reports by witnesses say the Tesla did not appear to slow down prior to rear-ending the giant red truck, the Washington Post reported on Saturday. That it was reported on at all is what irks Musk.

“It’s super messed up that a Tesla crash resulting in a broken ankle is front page news and the ~40,000 people who died in US auto accidents alone in past year get almost no coverage,” he tweeted on Monday.

Musk, as savvy at controlling the narrative as tech billionaires come, used the crash to highlight how safe Tesla’s cars are:

“What’s actually amazing about this accident is that a Model S hit a fire truck at 60mph and the driver only broke an ankle. An impact at that speed usually results in severe injury or death,” he followed.

This is not the first time a Model S has crashed into a fire truck this year. A nearly identical accident occurred on the 405 freeway outside of Los Angeles in January. The driver was not injured.

The Autopilot manual states this could happen, hence why you should pay attention:

Traffic-Aware Cruise Control cannot detect all objects and may not brake/decelerate for stationary vehicles, especially in situations when you are driving over 50 mph (80 km/h) and a vehicle you are following moves out of your driving path and a stationary vehicle or object is in front of you instead.

On a separate thread, Musk disputed the info in another Washington Post article, "Tesla Considered Adding Eye Tracking and Steering-Wheel Sensors to Autopilot System.” 

In the story, it’s claimed that the Autopilot developers at Tesla wanted the system to track eye movement to ensure the driver is paying attention, like smartphones can do before shutting off the display. Musk allegedly shut it down over cost and usability. The author cited “people familiar with the discussions.”

“This is false. Eyetracking rejected for being ineffective, not for cost. WSJ fails to mention that Tesla is safest car on road, which would make article ridiculous. Approx 4X better than avg.” Musk responded.
After being asked how that number was obtained, Musk obliged:  According to NHTSA, there was an automotive fatality every 86M miles in 2017 (~40,000 deaths). Tesla was every 320M miles. It’s not possible to be zero, but probability of fatality is much lower in a Tesla. We will be reporting updated safety numbers after each quarter.
This Tweet storm tells you a lot about the self-driving car industry right now.

First, companies such as Tesla are doing amazing things with safety, and we are on the right track. The reason we hear about Tesla accidents is because there are more on the road.

Secondly, users don’t read instructions, even when their lives are on the line. Because of this, we are not close to seeing autonomous cars on the road. In a controlled workspace, such as a warehouse, autonomous forklifts can thrive. On highways, where dozens of cars operate with their own agendas, things get more tricky. And assuming Tesla gets all the kinks out, there will be drivers who prefer manual control, adding a chaos factor into the orderly AI system.

Thirdly, when a few people own nearly everything, the appearance of objectivity is out the window. Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post and commercial space company Blue Origins, a direct competitor with Musk’s SpaceX. There is no reason to believe Bezos would order his staff to target Tesla unfairly, but there’s also no reason, aside from the Post’s longstanding reputation, for Musk to believe he isn’t being unfairly targeted. But complaining about the media typically doesn’t get journalists to back off. Maybe that was Musk’s plan all along, though. He loves free press as much as talking about Mars.

Finally, self-driving cars will be involved in more deaths, but less overall. In March, a Model X driver was killed and an autonomous Uber struck and killed a pedestrian. Tesla has sold at least 200,000 cars, and if the technology was inherently faulty, we should expect to see many more crashes. The U.S. government predicts self-driving tech will decrease car crashes by 80% by 2035.

With Autopilot, as with all newish AI innovations, there’s always room to continuously improve, and Musk acknowledges that:

It certainly needs to be better & we work to improve it every day, but perfect is enemy of good. A system that, on balance, saves lives & reduces injuries should be released.

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