Director Emma Schwartz raises questions about Tesla’s self-driving cars in Elon Musk’s Crash Course, a documentary she made with The New York Times Presents that’s currently streaming on Hulu.
“With self-driving cars, Elon Musk was selling a promise that was a long way off,” Schwartz said on a recent episode of the Factual America podcast.
“It’s about Elon Musk and Tesla’s attempt to create a self-driving car, right? This has been a dream in the sort of technology world for a long time,” Schwartz said. “This effort comes up against — literally crashes with — the assisted driver system. And so, we peel back what we can learn from the first fatal Autopilot crash in the United States that killed a man named Josh Brown. What does that tell us about the promises that Silicon Valley and Elon Musk have sold us? And, ultimately, how safe are these systems that are starting to come onto the road?”
Musk has always vouched for the safety of his cars. Tesla addressed Brown’s fatal 2016 crash in a blog post and has argued that neither Brown nor his Tesla’s autopilot system noticed a tractor-trailer that drove out across the highway in front of him. Tesla’s website notes that the Autopilot system still requires active driver supervision and does “not make the vehicle autonomous.”
Reps for Tesla did not immediately respond to MovieMaker‘s request for comment about Elon Musk’s Crash Course.
Schwartz, who drew on reporting from Times reporters Cade Metz and Neil Boudet to make the documentary, argues that if the system can’t safely be relied on unattended, then the term “autopilot” is misleading.
“When you and me hear the term autopilot, we think, like, automatic, right? That’s how our brains work. And that has been something that people have criticized for many years, but Tesla and Elon have stood behind saying, ‘Well, okay, that’s not what we mean,'” Schwartz said. “But I think we all know language is really important, because it affects how we perceive things and especially because most people don’t go into the fine print.”
She continued: “And it’s not just the initial package Autopilot. Since 2017, they’ve been selling a software called Full Self-Driving, right? Like, that, to me says, ‘Okay, this car can drive by itself pretty much anywhere.’ I think that’s what anyone who doesn’t know about the technology would think. And by everyone’s admission, it’s not full self-driving. It’s not just, ‘Okay, there was Autopilot, there was a misunderstanding.’ They made yet another package that says it’s something it’s not.”
Elon Musk’s Crash Course is now streaming on Hulu. Here are some time stamps from the Factual America interview:
00:00 – Trailer for Elon Musk’s Crash Course.
03:10 – What the film is about.
06:14 – The main findings of the investigation into self-driving cars.
09:00 – Autopilot vs driver’s assistance.
15:05 – The concerns of Tesla’s former employees for self-driving car technology and safety.
18:40 – The US Government’s response to fatal crashes of Tesla cars.
20:50 – Clip 1: Conversation with Elon Musk after the tragic death of Josh Brown.
23:30 – How Musk’s previous successes might affect his promises for self-drive technology.
30:00 – The role of media in boosting technology gurus and their bold announcements.
34:08 – How far we are from self-driving cars future.
37:03 – The vision behind The New York Times Presents series.
42:22 – Clip 2: Autopilot software engineer on the AI recognition problems in self-driving cars.
Factual America uses documentary filmmaking to examine the American experience as well as universal topics that affect all Americans. Guests include Academy Award, Emmy, and Grammy-winning filmmakers and producers, their subjects, as well as experts on the American experience. We discuss true crime, music, burning social and political topics, history and arts with the creators of the latest and upcoming documentary films in theatres and on the most popular digital platforms. This podcast is produced by Alamo Pictures, a London- and Austin-based production company that makes documentaries about the US from a European perspective for international audiences.
Main Image: A Still from Elon Musk’s Crash Course courtesy of Factual America.