As Elon Musk tweets his way through his pending Twitter acquisition, FX’s “The New York Times Presents” documentary banner takes a hard look at his flagship business, Tesla, and its long-deferred promise to deliver self-driving car technology with “Elon Musk’s Crash Course.”
Musk didn’t cooperate with the filmmakers, who focus on Tesla’s safety record, several fatal accidents tied to the technology and perhaps most significantly, Musk’s history of repeatedly saying that true self-driving technology is “two years away,” illustrated by clips of the CEO moving the goalposts again and again since 2015.
In addition, the film premieres as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has opened a new investigation into circumstances surrounding another crash, involving a Tesla in Newport Beach, California, this month.
As Times reporter Cade Metz notes, when pressed about the issue Musk has tended to “double down on it,” adding that in terms of his public optimism regarding when that space-age concept would become reality, “It’s very easy to say these things. And there’s no check on him.”
“Crash Course” includes interviews with various regulators as well as former Tesla employees, such as software engineer Raven Jiang, who make the points that self-driving technology was seen as a significant selling point and that it’s hard to distinguish Musk’s relentless salesmanship from whether he fully believes what he’s saying.
The producers also feature test drives that demonstrate blind spots in the Autopilot function, including difficulties identifying stationary objects that add to the risk factor.
Watch: Tesla in ‘Autopilot’ mode crashes into police car
Even with the necessary disclaimers, the term “self-driving” evokes certain expectations about the extent to which a person behind the wheel needs to be engaged in its operation, which has muddied the coverage. Musk’s high profile and swashbuckling entrepreneurial image have also fed into the romance surrounding the company, with Times reporter Neal Boudette saying, “Tesla fans hear what they want to hear.”
Tesla has said that it’s still the driver’s responsibility to pay heed to what the car is doing even while in Autopilot, and that the driver should be ready to take charge in case of problems with the software.
But critics suggest that Musk’s pronouncements have fueled perceptions that go beyond what Autopilot can currently accomplish, such as an interview in which he’s shown saying that self-driving technology will soon offer “complete autonomy. Safer than a human.”
“There are too many people who construe the term Autopilot to mean ‘Human engagement no longer necessary,’” says former National Transportation Safety Board chairman Christopher Hart.
With Musk very much in the news, “Crash Course” offers a window into this inordinately outspoken and controversial billionaire and the corporate culture that he fosters. Yet more urgently, it raises questions about the safety of Tesla owners when they employ Autopilot now, not where they’ll be two years from now.
“The New York Times Presents Elon Musk’s Crash Course” premieres May 20 at 10 p.m. ET on FX and Hulu.