The Autopilot Crisis: What Tesla Mustn’t Do

The Autopilot Crisis: What Tesla Mustn’t Do

Don’t fight it. Don’t try to brazen it out. Remember Intel’s PR disaster around the Pentium in the mid-90s? And what about the Exxon-Valdez oil disaster in 1989? And BP’s catastrophic oil spill in 2010? Closer to Tesla’s home industry, remember the Bridgestone tire scandal of 2000? And what about the ongoing dramas that are dragging down Toyota (airbags) and Volkswagen (diesel car pollution), jeopardizing their very viability?

Tesla’s insistence until now, despite a call by Consumer Reports yesterday for Tesla to disable hands-free operation until its system can be made safer, and to stop using misleading language such as “autopilot” for a driver-assist feature, is disturbing. To me it’s a sign of hubris that I would have hoped not to have seen from Elon Musk and his management team despite signs we’ve seen in the past of his notable ego, and his obsessive ambition – admirable in so many ways – to revolutionize the auto industry in every way imaginable. Musk is rumored to be particularly preoccupied to keep Tesla in front of Google on the self-driving cars front. This is where pride and hubris are getting in the company’s way.

Tesla has achieved so much with its extraordinarily successful Model S, despite a record of reliability that has at times been sub-par, that it would be a remarkable setback if Musk were to ignore the signposts that are telling him to eat a bit of humble pie, recall the driver-assist feature (which they can probably do via a software update), and apologize to his loyal and at-times fanatic following. Common sense mandates that Musk and Tesla have too much to lose by not following Consumer Reports’ four-point recommendation:

  • Stop referring to the system as “Autopilot” as it is misleading and potentially dangerous.
  • Issue clearer guidance to owners on how the system should be used and its limitations.
  • Test all safety-critical systems fully before public deployment; no more beta releases. (Me talking now: I have to say, I am shocked that Tesla would release a beta-test feature to all of its Model S owners, but then maybe Tesla hasn’t yet learned how to operate as a top-grade software-enabled business in every respect that it needs to, despite all the dazzling software-enabled feature of the car and the ownership experience.)
  • Disable Autosteer until it can be reprogrammed to require drivers to keep their hands on the steering wheel.

A bit more on the issue of Tesla releasing a beta version of Autopilot for general use: This is the mistake that many tech companies make, racing to launch a jazzy new feature and jam it into the marketplace at whatever cost without sufficient time to work out the kinks. Not a good idea, and in this case one that looks like coming back to haunt the company.

It will much better for Tesla to emulate the more successful cases of positive management responses to the PR nightmares that afflicted them, showing authentic acknowledgement of the problem, demonstrating real resolve to solve it, and thus with good fortune turning a dangerously negative crisis into an opportunity. These examples, which tend to be fewer than the negative ones, include the gold standard in crisis management – J&J’s recall in 1982 of 31 million cyanide-laced Tylenol capsules. The cyanide had been added to the pills by an unidentified person, which meant that the company was innocent of any malfeasance or negligence. But Johnson & Johnson quickly accepted responsibility (not guilt, but responsibility) and set up a 24-hour hotline to keep consumers updated on their attempts to solve the mystery. The CEO at the time, James Burke became a prominent media figure, making it very clear that consumer safety was the company’s top priority. The company also developed a tamper-proof seal to protect its bottles, an innovation in packaging that has undoubtedly saved many lives since then. This stellar response taught other companies to put the public’s welfare before the company’s profits, even though it cost J & J more than $100 million – considered an astronomical number at the time. Furthermore, “get the company’s CEO in front of the media if he is forthright and affable. And if there is a legitimate sympathy card available, play it”, as a Huffington Post piece on corporate PR nightmares put it.

Even Intel, which in 1994 initially tried to rationalize the Pentium bug as something that was insignificant to most computer users, managed to eventually turn the situation around, going on to produce one of the most successful brand promotions of all time in tech, the Intel Inside campaign, which solidified its dominant position in microprocessors for the following three decades. The customer backlash finally resulted in CEO Andy Grove, who realized the acute danger that the company was in, agreeing to replace all Pentium chips. The company set aside a $420 million reserve to cover the costs.

At the end of the day, in situations like these, the market and customers are always right in sensing when something is awry, and and corporate hubris will always be penalized. On the other hand, if the company’s management acts appropriately, they can turn the situation to their advantage by employing empathy and direct action and communication. Elon Musk, this is your chance.

6 Comments

Chris Lynn

about 8 months ago

Philip - call me a pedant, but you have inverted your meaning by including the comma after 'gain' in this crucial sentence: "Common sense mandates that Musk has too much to lose, and a lot to gain, by following Consumer Reports’ four-point recommendation.." If, as I suspect, you really mean that Musk has too much to lose by NOT following the CR recommendations, I agree.Your focus in the article is on what would be in Tesla's best interest. But, following Joshua Brown's unfortunate death, little consideration seems to have been given to the safety of other road-users. What if the auto-pilot software fails to notice a child against a confusing background? Tesla owners should be under no illusion that their ultimate responsibility (and liability) for safety is unaffected by driver assistance of any kind.

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Philip Lay

about 8 months ago

Hi Chris, Thanks very much for your helpful feedback. The sentence you pointed out with the typo in it has now been corrected to read "...that Musk and Tesla have too much to lose by not following Consumer Reports' four-point recommendation". As for your point about Tesla owners needing to understand the implications of using the driver-assist functions in the case of any accidents; and I would argue that the company needs to think this through as well.

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gauss256

about 8 months ago

I'm just about to give up on articles and comments on the topic of Autopilot when it is clear that the author has not experienced it first hand. Or taken into account the fact that the data shows that it is safer to have Autopilot turned on than off. Given that, why isn't there a hue and cry to *accelerate* the roll-out of Autopilot?I have driven thousands of miles with Autopilot and my personal experience is that it is much safer to have it enabled. Almost every article I've read about Autopilot in the last few weeks is absurdly far off the mark in terms of what Autopilot is, how well it works and how Tesla owners think about it.Comparing it to cyanide in Tylenol is absurd. A comparison to air bags would be more appropriate, but I think that current and future versions of Autopilot will be much more beneficial.

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Philip Lay

about 8 months ago

Mr. Gauss (??), Thans for your feedback, though I'm not 100% sure if/how to respond. I am familiar with the so-called Autopilot feature, which as the article states is misnamed and therefore misleading (part of the problem Tesla has created for itself). It's essentially driver-assist, which implies that the driver should remain in control at all times - as I think you yourself do, based on the wording of your statement about your experience driving with Autopilot. Unfortunately, not all drivers are equally thoughtful or informed, nor is the technology reliable to identify every possible danger. Another point is that this feature is described by Tesla itself as a beta release, which by definition should NEVER be made available as a general-availability feature. Beyond this, my focus in the article is that Tesla should do itself a favor by taking the right measures to turn this PR faux-pas into a neutral then maybe a positive, initially by following the Consumer Reports recommendations.

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Paul Wiefels

about 8 months ago

You have to be either a fool or foolishly naive to take hands off the wheel while driving a two ton automobile at freeway speeds. My M-B has autocorrect steering and braking - nudging me the right way - which is great when your too close to a shoulder, but I would never expect it to replace my own skill and good judgment.

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andrew salzman

about 8 months ago

It is sad to see that brilliant but too often egomaniacal founder CEOs are still making the same mistakes with regard to product issues...drilling into the minutiae of who exactly is at fault vs. accepting the presence of an issue demanding remedy. As a Tesla owner and one of those "fanatical followers", I expect the company to quickly address and solve problems which they often do through their software updates. Whether it's Travis Kalanick or Elon Musk, we continue to see PR blunders fueled by a disregard for a public that fails to embrace their thinking and logic. Customers bond with brands they like, and a blatant disregard for public sentiment is a recipe for unnecessary but dramatic stock declines, eroded brand confidence, and threats to leadership positions in burgeoning categories. I'm sure that all autopilot systems players are both attuned to the issues at play and reveling in the longer term competitive opportunities posed by Elon's approach to this problem.

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