Elon Musk Emerges as Either the Savior, or Villain, of the Autonomous Vehicle Industry in the U.S.

When you think of the leaders of a new technology venture like the development and production of autonomous vehicles, you probably think of a bunch of nerds with glasses sitting behind a computer all day typing code. A person like Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX and CEO of Tesla is certainly a surprise. This technology billionaire has incredible charisma and a flare for making dramatic (and often incorrect) predictions about the products and services that his companies provide.

He is also a controversial figure. Writing about him for my book, The Future is Autonomous, I tried to portray his visionary genius and his, at times, poor decisions in his relations to critics and the media. Warts and all. As of this writing, Musk has 44.8 million Twitter followers, with his most adoring fans calling themselves, “Muscovites.”

Therefore, this article and the following article which also describe Musk and Tesla’s efforts to advance the autonomous vehicle industry in the U.S. will undoubtedly lead to disagreements for how he is portrayed. But I did my best to portray him as I see him, both as a visionary and someone who needs to manage his image with the media to become an ideal advocate for the industry.

The Savior, or Villain, of the Autonomous Vehicle Industry Arrives

Twelve Thai soccer players and their coach hiked into the Tham Luong Nang cave system in northern Thailand on June 23, 2018. After they entered the cave, the cave’s entrance was blocked by floodwaters. The floods trapped all of them in a compartment half a mile underground and two-and-a-half miles from the mouth of the cave.

A rescue mission was almost inconceivable because there was a tremendous risk of the cave collapsing. This would lead to more people being either trapped or killed in the rescue effort. Millions of people all over the world were riveted, eagerly following any developments of the story in front-page headlines and 24/7 news reports on all of the major news outlets. Divers arrived from England and other countries to join the Thai Navy SEAL team to plan and conduct the extraction of the children and their coach. They would have to travel through the narrow tunnels of the cave, often working in total darkness.

The media attention attracted the attention of billionaire tech titan Elon Musk. He offered to design miniature submarines that could rescue the children. His offer to help was criticized by Vernon Unsworth. He was one of the British divers who had travelled to Thailand to assist with the rescue effort. He called Musk’s offer to help with the submarines “A PR stunt” in an interview with CNN.

Unsworth was part of the heroic rescue, which saw the boys finally emerge from the cave in good overall health. Musk could have ignored Unsworth’s comments. He and the rest of the team of divers were being adulated for what many considered to be a near-impossible rescue mission. Instead, Musk went on the attack, tweeting that Unsworth is a “pedo guy”, implying he is a pedophile.

Musk’s attack on Unsworth followed a familiar trend, treating the media and anyone critical of him and his companies as the villain. After initially refusing to apologize, Musk later tweeted on July 18, 2018 that while Unsworth’s comments about his desire to help were untruthful, his reply was based on anger. He then made another tweet stating, “His actions against me do not justify my actions against him, and for that I apologize to Mr. Unsworth and to the companies I represent as a leader.”

Musk has been a true visionary throughout his career, working at the forefront to develop new industries. His work with Tesla has greatly benefitted both the electric vehicle and autonomous vehicle industries. However, the success or failure of the autonomous vehicle industry in the US may depend on him as the most charismatic public figure in the industry. To do this, he must treat the media less like a villain and more like an advocate for autonomous vehicles.

Elon Musk was born on July 28, 1971 in Pretoria, South Africa. Spending the early part of his life in South Africa, he briefly attended the University of Pretoria. He then embarked on a journey that took him first to Canada, where he studied at Queen’s University. After two years at Queen’s University, he transferred to the University of Pennsylvania. There he received a bachelor’s degree in economics from the Wharton School and a bachelor’s degree in physics from the College of Arts and Sciences.

His whirlwind educational journey ended when he attended Stanford University, where he began his PhD in applied physics and material sciences. However, he dropped out after two days and started his business career. It is unclear why his studies as a PhD student were cut short so abruptly. Whatever the reason may be, it was time for him to begin to establish a name for himself as an innovator. He was certainly in the right place at the right time in Silicon Valley during the tech boom of the 1990s.

Musk made a name for himself as an internet pioneer founding and selling two companies during the 1990s. In May 2002, Musk left the world of internet business in favor of space voyage and transportation when he launched SpaceX. SpaceX is an aerospace manufacturer and space transport service.

For voyages much closer to home, Elon Musk joined Tesla, Inc. in 2004. Tesla is an electric vehicle manufacturing company. Other than manufacturing electric vehicles, Musk also created SolarCity, a solar energy services company which is now a subsidiary of Tesla. Musk bet all of his money on what at the time, and perhaps even now, were risky bets. His business vision would be severely tested in the coming years.

Pursuing a new venture would not just be risking millions of dollars on a failed internet venture. Any vehicle or spaceship failure could hurt or kill people. I had a conversation with my friend, a graduate student at Tsinghua University who has been interning for an autonomous vehicle startup in Beijing. He got to drive in a level three autonomous Audi vehicle, saying, “If for some unforeseen consequences I crash into something and someone dies or I die, then Audi is going to get the blame for that, or Tesla for an American example.” Even though Tesla was originally just an electric vehicle company, Musk is still risking his money, reputation, and potentially people’s lives if there is a mistake with his vehicles.

Educating the public about the benefits of electric vehicles would require Musk to have a favorable relationship with the media. In recent years, Musk has attacked the media in tweets and statements for being “holier than thou,” arguing it had lost its credibility and journalists wrote negative stories about Tesla “because they want more page views.”

As one of the leading figures in the high-tech world with a massive following of loyal people, Musk has done a wonderful job overall of advancing the cause of both electric vehicles and autonomous vehicles. Attacking the media is counter-productive to his goals both as a businessman and advocate for his passion of autonomous vehicles.

Musk’s suspicion and paranoia about the media and all perceived “enemies” is not new. Musk’s short temper and outbursts are well-known to current and former employees at Tesla and SpaceX. When asked about his recent outbursts, an employee responded, “It doesn’t strike me as some drastic change in his personality.”

This story does not describe the whole story, either. As of January 2020, Elon Musk has thirty million Twitter followers. Therefore, he has immense power to serve as both an advocate for the industries he represents and as a detractor because of his attacks. Channeling that power would be of great benefit to the autonomous vehicle industry, just as it has proven to be for the electric vehicle industry in the US.

While winning over the media was not something Musk was prepared to focus on, the first step would be to make electric vehicles people would actually want to buy. As I discussed in my chapter on the short-term benefits of autonomous vehicles, they are held to a higher safety standard than human-driven vehicles. Therefore, they attract significantly more media attention than other vehicles regardless of what company makes them.

This chapter will examine the contributions Elon Musk has made to the autonomous vehicles industry. Of perhaps even greater importance, this chapter discusses Musk’s polarizing personality. His statements and actions both inform and advocate for autonomous vehicles. However, his statements and actions can also damage the already shaky trust Americans have for autonomous vehicles when he attacks the media, local government, and critics.

Tesla’s Autopilot-enabled Vehicles Hit the Road

Musk’s greatest challenge yet would be to make Americans excited about electric vehicles. Even in 2018, only five percent of battery-operated vehicles of all forms accounted for the new car sales. According to a 2019 survey conducted by AAA, forty million Americans said they will buy an electric vehicle for their next car. However, only forty percent believed the majority of cars sold in the US would be electric by 2029.

What accounts for this gap in desire by consumers for electric vehicles and actual purchases? According to Greg Bannon, AAA’s director of automotive engineering, “Like other new vehicle technologies, Americans don’t have the full story which could be causing the gap between interest and action.” The same would also be true for autonomous vehicles. Another explanation could be there are infrastructure constraints with a lack of charging stations or a lengthy charging time for some vehicles. Therefore, Musk had to deal with both a lack of information about electric vehicles and charging infrastructure constraints.

Tesla’s first electric vehicle, the Roadster, debuted in 2008 and the most obvious improvement of this car was its sleek, two door sportscar design. The car could also achieve two hundred forty-five miles on a single charge. This was an improvement from previous electric vehicles, such as the tiny, box-shaped Smartcar rental cars. The car could accelerate from zero to sixty miles per hour in less than four seconds. However, despite a federal tax credit of seven thousand five hundred dollars for purchasing an electric vehicle, the Roadster still cost one hundred nine thousand dollars. This would make it outside the price range of most consumers.

Tesla’s next vehicle was the Model S. The Model S was acclaimed by automotive critics for its performance and design. The sedan came with three different battery options with ranges of two hundred thirty-five or three hundred miles per charge. The Model S also offered Tesla’s next innovation to the automotive market with its Autopilot option for an additional eight thousand dollars.

The Autopilot feature adds semiautonomous driving for all Model S (and later model) vehicles. One thing to note is Tesla’s Autopilot does not make the vehicle completely autonomous. Rather, Autopilot is a suite of automotive systems including lane-centering, adaptive cruise control, self-parking, the ability to automatically change lanes, navigate autonomously on limited access freeways, and the ability to summon the car to and from a parking garage or spot.

There have been drivers who make or appear in YouTube videos who are asleep in the driver’s seat or sitting in the backseat while the Tesla vehicle has Autopilot engaged. The vehicle’s owner manual clearly states people still need to have their hands on the steering wheel at all times and need to pay attention to the road in case they need to manually take control. Abusing the Autopilot feature is reckless and could lead to fatal accidents.

Tesla has repeatedly claimed driving with Autopilot engaged is safer than a human-driven vehicle, with one accident every three million miles reported. The national average is one crash for every four hundred eighty thousand miles driven. However, when accidents do occur involving a Tesla driving with Autopilot engaged, the stories make headlines. People assume Autopilot means the vehicle is fully autonomous. The name itself suggests this. Tesla needs to have clearer advertising campaigns which mention the vehicles are not actually fully autonomous.

Tesla has introduced several key features which will be very important for the autonomous vehicle industry moving forward. Something crucial for the success of autonomous vehicles in both the US and China is Tesla’s Over-The-Air (OTA) update system. This system allows Tesla vehicles to download updates wirelessly, as long as they are connected to a WiFi network or data source (4G-LTE, 5G, etcetera)

To learn more about Elon Musk at Tesla or the leaders and companies of other top autonomous vehicle companies in the U.S. and China, read my book The Future is Autonomous. The link to the book on Amazon is below. Also, if you like the book, please leave a review on Amazon and/or Goodreads.com!

Link to the book on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Future-Autonomous-China-Develop-Driverless-ebook/dp/B08PVRL38J