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This article was published on April 27, 2021

Will Tesla survive Elon Musk’s bumbling leadership?

The company needs to get ahead of Elon Musk's insatiable need for attention before US regulators do

Will Tesla survive Elon Musk’s bumbling leadership?
Tristan Greene
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Tristan Greene

Editor, Neural by TNW

Tristan is a futurist covering human-centric artificial intelligence advances, quantum computing, STEM, physics, and space stuff. Pronouns: Tristan is a futurist covering human-centric artificial intelligence advances, quantum computing, STEM, physics, and space stuff. Pronouns: He/him

Incompetent isn’t a word you’d normally use to describe one of the most financially successful human beings in history, but here we are. Yes, I’m talking about billionaire business magnate Elon Musk.

On the one hand, Musk has a brilliant once-in-a-generation intellect. He’s the architect and driving force behind several incredibly successful tech companies ranging from PayPal to SpaceX. Musk is the epitome of a big-picture person with the vision and gumption to take far-fetched, pie-in-the-sky ideas and ground them in reality.

Open AI, a company he helped found, is responsible for GPT-3, the world’s most advanced text generator. Neuralink, another science-based business of his, is attempting to make brain-computer interfaces. And Tesla, well we all know how Tesla’s doing:

Viewed through the lens of the stock market and Musk’s massive cultish following of sycophants on social media, one would be forgiven for thinking he’s the second coming of Henry Ford mixed with Albert Einstein and, well, Nikola Tesla.

But here’s the rub: All three of those comparisons are ridiculous. Henry Ford focused his energy and passion on his singular purpose. Musk’s attention is split between his numerous companies, maintaining his Bro Leader One image on social media and in celebrity circles, and spending what appears to be the majority of his time trolling those who disagree with any of his business decisions, firebrand political ideas, or social opinions.

Albert Einstein was an educated scientist and a leading expert in his domain (physics), while Musk is an engineer and a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to technology. And, Tesla, well, even Musk says he prefers Edison to Tesla due to the Nikola’s lack of marketing savvy and lesser popularity in the public eye.

Musk’s interests appear to increasingly lie beyond science, technology, and engineering. His discourse has become so unhinged in recent years that Grimes, his partner and the mother of his child, has gone on the record to inform people that she doesn’t believe Musk is a “men’s right activist,” but that he’s just “really immature.”

Yet, realistically, who cares if Elon Musk’s right-leaning commentary has led to him coming out as an anti-science misinformation peddler, right wing radical ideologist, and misogynist? Even when he goes off the deep end and accuses someone of pedophilia, without evidence and eventually admitting having no basis for the accusation other than a desire to harm the reputation of someone who disagreed with him, Musk’s investors and the boards of the companies he runs don’t care.

Until they do.

Musk’s comments often get him in regulatory trouble. His long-time feud with the SEC has threatened Tesla on more than one occasion, and recent comments on everything from Gamestop to Bitcoin have caused shuffles in markets that have financial experts worried about Musk-created bubbles forming in a fragile post-COVID economy.

But, again, Musk’s supporters can easily shrug that off. Take a gander back up there at that Tesla stock image. If it makes you smile, you’re already convinced. There’s nothing I, or anyone else, can ever say to shake your faith in Musk’s magic.

For everyone else, however, I invite you to cast your vision forward.

Tesla’s the only car company still betting that pure computer vision will solve autonomous driving. Experts in artificial intelligence – experts who, like Einstein, specialize in science-based solutions instead of market-based hype – believe Musk and Tesla are barking up the wrong tree.

In response, Musk often claims his competitors are “relying” on LIDAR and thus “doomed to fail.” Yet, to the best of my knowledge, the only autonomous vehicle company relying on a single-pronged approach is Tesla and its vision-only method.

Worse, Tesla’s the only vehicle company forcing the general public to participate in unregulated experiments with its customers in control of its technology.

Worse, Musk’s supporters believe he’s captured the market on consumer-facing self-driving cars by innovating and engineering solutions to arrive first. But, here’s the problem with that: there’s a dozen companies out there that could easily implement a system comparable to Tesla’s “Autopilot” and “Full Self Driving.”

Those technologies are well within Google and Apple’s purview (did we all forget that Google and Waymo are sister companies and that the GANfather, Ian Goodfellow, works at Apple now?). I’d even be willing to wager Nvidia could toss together a Tesla-equivalent autonomous vehicle system in a matter of months if it chose to as well. Deep learning and computer vision aren’t new or particularly difficult in 2021. 

So, why aren’t they? The short answer: because Autopilot and Full Self Driving don’t work. No other vehicle manufacturer is willing to put a potentially deadly product out on the streets ahead of regulation that doesn’t even function properly. The reasons for this are myriad, but here’s two very important ones:

People keep dying in Tesla vehicles because they don’t follow the clear directions to always keep their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road. Yet, Elon Musk has been seen on camera several times taking his attention off the road and his hands off the wheel to prove how “safe” they are.

Regulators don’t find this behavior endearing, in fact it could be considered false advertising that endangers the general public. Remember: nobody but the person who purchases a Tesla agrees to participate in Musk’s autonomous driving experiments, yet everyone on the road has to.

And, second, regulation is coming. Real autonomous vehicles, like the kind Waymo is working on, will likely be here within a matter of years. These probably won’t be consumer facing (they’ll be robotaxis, not cars you buy), and they won’t work everywhere at first. They’ll work in environments they’ve been tested in until infrastructure can be built to support them in other places.

What this means, whether you worship Musk or not, is that Tesla is in a race against time. It has to double-down and win on Musk’s insistence that computer vision alone can solve autonomous driving before Waymo, Apple, or some other company figures out a working hybrid system. Losing, for Tesla, means losing all the time and money it’s invested into a vision-only system. 

Tesla’s also tied its future to Bitcoin, anti-woke counterculture, right wing politics, and a CEO who openly castigates and feuds with US regulatory authorities. That’s a tough roadmap for a company to work with.

Maybe Apple and Waymo will fail. Perhaps the SEC and other governing bodies will change their stance on market interference and start to enjoy Musk’s muddling. But, I wouldn’t bet on it. 

It’s more likely Tesla will fail to produce a self-driving car (Musk said he’d have a million on the road before the end of 2020, it’s almost mid 2021 and the tally is: 0). It’s possible that Elon’s bumbling on Twitter and insistence on meddling in the stock market will eventually bring down serious consequences from the US government and Tesla could be the company that suffers the most. Not to mention the marketing hit Tesla will take for failing to live up to its own hype. 

And all of that would be a crying shame. Because, in my opinion, Tesla is the greatest car manufacturer on the planet. It set the standard for electric vehicles and changed the way cars are made. However, Musk’s market manipulation and insistence on a one-track solution for autonomous driving do nothing but jeopardize the company’s future.

It’s time for Musk to take his PT Barnum act to another startup and leave Tesla to cooler heads. Beause it appears as though he’s on a personal quest to prove himself right, by showing that AI tech from 2014 is the future of autonomous driving and that he’s more powerful than the SEC.

That’s not how you run a successful company, it’s how you ruin it.

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