Ever since billionaire Elon Musk’s disastrous reign at Twitter started late last year, observers have had a whale of a time pointing out the avalanche-like plummeting of the stock value of Tesla that’s gone alongside it. Clearly, Musk’s fixation on, and disastrous helming of, the social media platform has blunted investor confidence in his once-triumphant “self-driving car” company.
But let’s not forget there might be another culprit: the proliferation of deaths and lawsuits surrounding the company.
Around 765,000 of Tesla’s cars are equipped with the company’s so-called “Autopilot” and “Full Self-Driving” systems while zipping around American streets as we speak, a shocking example of mass human beta testing that we’re all unwittingly part of. Over the year to July 2022, Tesla cars running Autopilot software were involved in 273 crashes, according to data from regulators, or 70 percent of the 392 crashes that involved all advanced driver-assistance systems. Scandalously, regulators found that Tesla’s vehicles had a habit of turning off around one second before the crash would actually happen, which is why regulators have now ordered car makers to disclose all crashes where this kind of software was being used within thirty seconds of impact, to stop them from using this as a loophole to under-report.
It got so bad that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) started investigating the software last year, after Tesla cars on Autopilot kept running into parked emergency vehicles, often at night and despite flashing lights, cones, and various other alerts. By the middle of last year, thirty-nine of the forty-eight crashes on the NHTSA’s entirely separate list of special crash investigations involved Tesla vehicles, which had killed nineteen people, and the agency bumped its investigation up to the final phase before potentially issuing a recall. One of those crashes saw the Tesla simply barge into a motorcycle that was in front of it, killing the driver, one of many such instances that have been rising in number.
Part of the problem is that Tesla’s “self-driving” cars aren’t actually self-driving at all, and require, as the company’s website says, constant supervision from a “fully attentive” driver with their hands on the wheel. The other part of the problem is that you wouldn’t know this from the company’s marketing materials or its celebrity CEO’s public statements, which have talked about the software letting you travel “without you touching the wheel” and the driver “not doing anything” because “the car is driving itself” — which is presumably why some of the drivers involved in these crashes were watching a movie or playing a video game on their phones.
Not surprisingly, Musk and the company have been taken to court over these and other scandals. The families of two of the victims have filed lawsuits alleging that Tesla vehicles are defective, lack an automatic emergency braking system, and “suddenly and unintentionally accelerated to an excessive, unsafe and uncontrollable speed.” A class-action suit launched last year accused Tesla of misleadingly advertising its autonomous driving technology since 2016 as fully functional or close to it, while another took Musk to court for serially claiming a fully self-driving car was only a year or two away, statements going back as early as 2015. Other class-action lawsuits allege a problem of cars suddenly stopping for nonexistent obstacles and defective door handles that fall off after a few years.
Other lawsuits charge there’s more that’s rotten at Tesla than the production line. The company has been hit with at least ten suits, including one from the State of California, over alleged widespread, shocking levels of racial discrimination at its Fremont, California, factory, including the regular use of racial slurs and black workers’ being segregated into separate areas. A different lawsuit alleges that Musk has inappropriate sway over Tesla’s board of directors, which he used to get an unduly massive pay package.
So yes, Musk’s incompetence at running Twitter has almost certainly hurt the enterprise that made him famous in the first place. But that enterprise itself is riddled with scandal and fatal incompetence, reminding us that the entire image of Musk, genius CEO, was dubious long before he got involved in the social media game.