Elon Musk Hits Back Over Tesla Autopilot Fatality Article - InformationWeek

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12:05 PM

Elon Musk Hits Back Over Tesla Autopilot Fatality Article

Elon Musk, the famously brash CEO of Tesla Motors, is taking Fortune magazine to task for what he and the company considers a fundamentally incorrect article regarding a fatal crash.

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Tesla CEO Elon Musk has continued to push back against the negative press his electric vehicle company has gotten in the wake of a fatal crash involving a Tesla owner who had engaged the self-driving Autopilot feature.

Through a post on Twitter, Musk directed his followers to a blog post the Tesla team had written regarding a July 2 Fortune article about the crash. The Tesla post, "Misfortune," states from the very start that the magazine's article is fundamentally incorrect.

The Fortune article reports that Tesla failed to disclose the crash, which occurred on May 7 and revealed to the public by Tesla and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) on June 30, when Musk sold stock in a public offering on May 18.

The crash occurred in Florida and took the life of 40-year-old Joshua D. Brown from Canton, Ohio, who died after his Tesla passed underneath an 18-wheeler and its roof collided with the truck. It then continued along the road before striking two fences and a utility pole.

"Neither Autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied," according to Tesla's statement about the crash. "The high ride height of the trailer combined with its positioning across the road and the extremely rare circumstances of the impact caused the Model S to pass under the trailer, with the bottom of the trailer impacting the windshield of the Model S."

(Image: Sjoerd van der Wal/iStockphoto)

(Image: Sjoerd van der Wal/iStockphoto)

In the Tesla blog post, the company argues that not only did Fortune mischaracterize the company's US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filing, it also rushed to publication without properly reaching out to Tesla representatives.

"Fortune entirely ignores what Tesla knew and when, nor have they even asked the questions," according to Tesla. "Instead, they simply assume that Tesla had complete information from the moment this accident occurred."

Tesla maintains that this was a physical impossibility, given the fact that the damage sustained by the Model S in the crash limited Tesla's ability to recover data from it remotely.

"When Fortune contacted Tesla for comment on this story during the July 4th holiday, Fortune never asked any of these questions and instead just made assumptions," the post stated. "Tesla asked Fortune to give it a day to confirm these facts before it rushed its story to print. They declined and instead ran a misleading article."

Tesla also claims there is no evidence to suggest that Autopilot was not operating as designed and as described to users, specifically, as a driver assistance system that maintains a vehicle's position in lane and adjusts the vehicle's speed to match surrounding traffic.

[Read why drivers want autonomous cars that won't kill them.]

The autopilot system involves four different feedback modules, including a camera, radar, ultrasonics, and GPS.

For its part, Fortune is standing behind the article and no correction to the original piece has been published. Alan Murray, the editor of Fortune, sent out this Tweet:

Despite updates to the system in October and January, Musk has cautioned drivers to keep their hands on the wheel for now.

"We're being especially cautious at this stage so we're advising drivers to keep their hands on the wheel just in case," Reuters reported Musk as telling the media Oct. 14 at Tesla's Silicon Valley headquarters. "Over time there will not be a need to have your hands on the wheel."

In a statement posted on the Tesla Motors website on June 30, the company acknowledged the inquiry and characterized the incident as "the first known fatality in just over 130 million miles where Autopilot was activated."

Nathan Eddy is a freelance writer for InformationWeek. He has written for Popular Mechanics, Sales & Marketing Management Magazine, FierceMarkets, and CRN, among others. In 2012 he made his first documentary film, The Absent Column. He currently lives in Berlin. View Full Bio

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User Rank: Ninja
7/9/2016 | 1:10:24 PM
Auto-pilot sounds nothing more than 'smart cruise control' (the smart being to adjust speed with traffic), lane assist, and auto-braking (as seen on other cars). If you turn on cruise control and stop paying attention to the road, you too can run into a semi truck. if you assume you can let your hands off the wheel because 'lane assist' will keep you in the lane, you too could end up careening off the highway.

I think Tesla's biggest mistake in all of this is the product NAME: "Autopilot". It has an implication that it will drive for you (because the common perception of autopilot is the same as 'self-driving' or "look, my car's driving so I can take a nap or read a book!").  Which I'm sure the lawsuit that will be filed will contend.

The whole Fortune side of this is just standard publishing practice for decades. Write a story, wait until the last minute (preferably right before a weekend, and in this case, it was a holiday weekend!) and ask for comment. Who's going to be around to comment? And then just run the story with a "We asked tesla to comment and they didn't" line in there. What would Fortune have done if Tesla did respond with reams of information that basically shot the entire story full of holes and they'd have to rewrite it, or even toss it out? That'd be a waste of money. So make sure you don't risk that happening by giving them no chance to do that!
User Rank: Ninja
7/8/2016 | 6:51:58 AM
As sad as this is, all of it is to be expected. It's expected that someone would die while using autopilot, it's expected that people will claim the technology is dangerous and it's expected that Tesla will defend it. 

Tesla is just the first company pushing autonomous technology to deal with this sort of terrible accident, but it won't be the last. Someone will die in a Google car one day and it will really suck, but we can't let this sort of thing perturb us from testing new technologies and moving forward.

That said, in the mean time pay attention to the road. These autonomous modes are not 100 percent, not even close.
User Rank: Apprentice
7/7/2016 | 12:40:07 PM
Tesla autopilot
AUTOPILOTS Autopilots require to be monitored at ALL times, including aircraft, trains and boats (ships). Autopilots are an AID not a replacement for the driver, pilot, or ship watchman. A pilot cannot go get a coffee 'because the autopilot's on.' He would be boarded (fired) immediately if it came out. Single pilots carry plastic urinals for use while seated. A 'Watch' on a ship can't go take a nap! A train driver can't go make a sandwich. Autopilots are there to free the driver, pilot, watch up a little so he can check instruments and other things to do with his journey. He/she cannot take attention away from the behaviour of the vehicle (visually or by instruments) with its surrounds. A pilot simply reaching behind for a chart and the autopilot disengages (which they DO either by design or fault) and the plane could invert in that short time. Thanks, Pilot (3 400 hours multi engine)
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