🔗 Elon Musk's Other Freudian Slip


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A year and a half ago, I wrote about one of Elon Musk's rare moments of honesty in a 2022 interview with Chris Anderson (of dubious TED fame), where he declared that people shouldn't hold him to his insane, obviously false promises and predictions because they're all really "just guesses". If you want to know what promises and predictions I'm talking about, go read that text.

If that confession wasn't enough for you to cancel your Roadster pre-order, I got an even worse one for you. I wanted to write about that one long ago, but I couldn't remember where it was from, and I certainly didn't want to suffer through hours of Elon-talk just to find it. Well, I found it, unsurprisingly in one of his most famous, craziest talks. It was in April of 2019, during Tesla's first annual, cringe-worthy Autonomy Day.

Musk made a lot of bonkers claims at this event, such as the famous "next year, for sure, we will have over a million robotaxis on the roads"; and his estimates that Tesla owners will be making $30,000 a year by clicking a button (a fake button on their smartphone touchscreen, don't worry) that turned their car into a ride-share robotaxi. With so many grandiose claims and promises, it was easy to gloss over Musk's so-called freudian slip to which I am alluding, but I spit my decaf Coke Zero when I first heard it, and it's even better when taken into account together with everything Tesla has done since then.

I am referring to the following part of the monologue (starting at 01:47:00; emphasis mine):

At some point, you won't need steering wheel or pedals, we'll just delete those. So as, as, as these things become less and less important we'll just delete parts, they won't, they won't be there. Um. If you say, like, probably (stares at ceiling…), three years from now, we, we, we, we'd make a car that has no steering wheels or pedals. And if we need to accelerate that time we can always just delete parts. Easy!

If this didn't convince you never to buy a Tesla back when Musk said it in 2019, it should definitely convince you of that now in 2024, after everything that has happened since then. But before that I want to say just how insane the claim that "you can always just delete parts" is, and more so how insane it is to think that deleting parts somehow magically accelerates anything, let alone fully autonomous vehicle development. Yes, simplification can be a good thing, but that doesn't mean anything so extreme.

Cars are safety-critical machines, meaning it is critical that they are safe to operate, so as to minimise the potential for injury or death. Many such machines achieve safety by, amongst other means, redundancy. This can mean a lot of things, but we can generalize it as "duplicating components", whether the actual installation of several copies of the same component, such that the failure of one is not fatal to the machine; or the installation of fallback components that are not necessarily duplicates of the component they are meant to cover, but provide the same features or capabilities.

Say then, for example, that you decided for some reason to design a car that drives itself. This car will need to share the road with other self-driving cars, regular human-driven cars, health-concious cyclists, electric scooter kids with a death wish, Wolt delivery people, highway joggers, crossing pedestrians, parked cars, etc. If safety is one of your main concerns, would you allow the car to have no redundancy in terms of controls? Will you really only allow it to be controlled by some program of dubious quality on a SoC, and remove the ability to control it manually in case of the inevitable crash of that program?

The desire of players in the self-driving car game to remove the car's driving controls shows just how disconnected from reality all these rich tech bros are. They will probably put the claim towards regulators—if and when the time comes—that the redundancy for the car's autonomous code would be manual remote operation via an Internet connection, removing the need for manual controls. Regulators shouldn't buy this, but in today's society of loose morals and unending greed, they might. In any country not being run by idiots, removal of the manual controls of motor vehicles will never happen. Not in our lifetimes, at least. If not because it's unsafe, then because self-driving vehicles aren't happening any time soon anyway.

Musk's outlandish, off-the-cuff argument that "you can always delete parts" does not give off the impression that safety is something he really cares or knows about (It doesn't really give off the impression that he knows anything about engineering, while we're at it). Tesla was a VC-funded startup, after all, and we all know that the last thing VC-funded startups care about is safety. Having to deal with safety means having to spend large amounts of time and money, time and money that could be spent on finding the next investor who will buy your shares in the Ponzi schemecompany for hundreds of millions of dollars.

Tesla, of course, was already famous for deleting parts. Buttons, for example. Physical buttons are not cheap. They need wiring, switches, capacitors, resistors, and a bunch of other crap. Installing them is difficult. In physical buttons' defence, they work, virtually always, they never randomly change location, and they give you a nice tactile feedback such that you don't even need to take your eyes off the road. Contrast that with virtual touch buttons on a big stupid tablet attached to a computer with HTML/JS support. That thing is cheap, easy to install, difficult and arguably dangerous to use, the buttons sometimes change locations on the screen because of an OTA update, and they lag or ignore presses when the CPU is under heavy load.

Mechanical door handles were also deemed unnecessary by the geniuses at Tesla. Why allow your customers to easily open their car doors when you can create a door that only opens when the car has power and can successfully authenticate with a Python server in China or some shit? Why allow drivers to simply pull the door handle and get out in case of a fire when you can just lock them inside and record them burning to death? Funnily enough, Tesla only provided a mechanical fallback to opening doors in certain models, and not necessarily for all doors, but those fallbacks are hidden below the rugs or require dismantling parts in order to be revealed. Yes, the people running this company care about your life.

It's interesting to look back then on how Tesla's fully autonomous vehicle project has evolved since April of 2019. As Elon said that there'll always be parts to delete, Tesla went ahead and deleted more parts. Not the parts Musk wanted to delete, but arguably important parts to both the vehicles' general operation and to the autonomy project as well. A big part of the presentation in 2019's Autonomy Day was dedicated to the subject of Lidar, a range scanning technology, which many people criticised Tesla for forgoing. Musk went so far as to say that all companies in the market using Lidar were doomed. Instead, Musk and Karpathy touted Tesla's robust arsenal of cameras, radars and ultrasonic sensors. By then, I think Tesla had already removed its rain sensor, which was used for the automatic wiper feature, but I may be wrong on the timeline. After Autonomy Day 2019, the radars and ultrasonic sensors were the first to go.

The next year, deep inside the COVID-pandemic, and with Tesla's autonomy project nowhere near Elon's targets and amid a global chip shortage, Tesla started talking about removing the radar, claiming Tesla's self-driving feature will only improve by this omission, and that really only the cameras are needed. Tesla went on to stop installing radars in new vehicles, then disabled radar usage for already radar-equipped cars, and apparently went so far as to physically remove the radar units from cars that happened to be serviced, if Reddit posts are to be believed.

Not long after that, Tesla announced that the ultrasonic sensors, used when parking and backing up to measure distance from obstacles behind you, will also be removed, leaving the entire "smart", "automatic", "autonomous" feature-stack of the car camera-dependent. Since then, judging by the multitudes of dissatisfied-but-ashamed-to-admit-it owners testimonials on various message boards, such as Tesla Motors Club; many YouTube videos, and a lot of media coverage, Tesla's self-driving capabilities devolved rather than evolved, regressed rather than progressed. Complaints that Tesla's autowiper feature works terribly since the removal of the rain sensors are common. Complaints that Tesla's parking assistance and autopark features work terribly since the removal of radar and USS are also common. Complaints that Autopilot and FSD continue to run through stop signs and go on a collision course with other cars continue unabated.

Tesla knew that removing these sensors would prevent all these features from working right, so it both disabled or reduced the capabilities of these features, and communicated to customers that these were temporary setbacks, and that soon Tesla's incredibly awesome Python code or whatever will be so good that these feature will not only return to work as well as they did before the removals, but they will return to work better than they did before the removals. It seems this has yet to happen, according to customer testimonials, but I am an outside observer, and all the crap I'm saying are JUST GUESSES™, so don't hold me to my words.

Tesla doesn't care though. Their new "honestly seriously yeah it's actually released" CyberTruck now features touch buttons on the steering wheel for turn signals, in place of the physical stalk signals that literally every other car has and pretty much never fail. How insane do you need to be to make that choice? To make it impossible to signal when your wheel is not straight. To make your car easier to build but harder to use.

Recently, Tesla "sufferred" two massive recalls. Fans detest the word "recall", because every such recall comes with the claim that the relevant issues will be fixed with an OTA software update, so they shouldn't count as recalls. It seems that Tesla keeps convincing the NHTSA that its car's issues are all software related. And yet, the customer testimonials generally do not indicate that Tesla's updates actually ever trully fix these issues, such as the famous "phantom braking" issue of Tesla's self-driving features. This issue triggered an OTA-update-only recall back in 2021, and yet "phantom braking" remains an annoying and dangerous issue for many customers, by many accounts.

Why, why would Tesla remove these components, knowing full well that their car's self-driving capabilities were not ready yet, and that proper redundancies had not yet been established? How could Tesla take back these capabilities and features that their customers paid for and supposedly owned?

The answer, as always, is money. Money, insane promises, and startups. Tesla is a VC-funded company. It's slowly realizing that the gargantuan promises of a clean and economical future were nothing but pipe dreams. That business, development, research, manufacturing, logistics, human resources, marketing and all that jazz are bloody expensive, and no amount of robotaxis and unfixable batteries will change that. Tesla products cannot be cheap and economical, and Tesla cannot afford to lose money on redundancies, safety, or whatever left-wing-but-somehow-big-oil-supporting bullshit you think they need to care about. Profits must be maximized, new investors must be found, existing investors must be bailed out. Remove components, make it cheaper to build but not cheaper to buy. Enshittify it, delete parts, delete components, delete features, delete the whole product if it somehow makes you money. Elon can always delete parts. Easy! Which part will go next? The seats? The windshield? Maybe just the seat belts. No one needs seat belts, Tesla vehicles are so ridiculously safe, you really don't need seat belts, that's an old man's game.

Don't ever buy a fucking Tesla. Or do, what do I care?

EDIT: Just two days after publishing this text, it was announced that Tesla was deleting some speakers from their Model Y.