The short story is that three Tesla owners are suing the electric carmaker on the grounds that “Tesla has not released truly functional software for its Standard Safety Features or Enhanced Autopilot.”
The accusation alone is extraordinary (and probably important if the case progresses). But what stands out immediately is Tesla’s abrasive and standoffish reaction.
Ars Technical cites a Tesla statement saying the whole thing is a “disingenuous attempt to secure attorney’s fees posing as a legitimate legal action, which is evidenced by the fact that the suit misrepresents many facts.”
And that: “The inaccurate and sensationalistic view of our technology put forth by this group is exactly the kind of misinformation that threatens to harm consumer safety.”
Leaving aside the fact the story carries a promotional shot of a Tesla car bearing a number plate which states “zero emissions” — a potentially disingenuous claim given there’s no guarantee Tesla cars run entirely on renewable fuel-produced electricity alone — or that rumours abound about the company’s penchant for slamming NDAs on customers who require bodywork or mechanical work from Tesla when things go wrong, there’s something genuinely confusing about Tesla disputing questions over the validity of its marketing claims on grounds that doing so might harm consumer safety.
If the suit is bogus or misrepresents the facts, it stands to reason Tesla will win without a problem. The plaintiffs on the other hand will lose time, money and possibly reputation.
But while Tesla does have a right to defend itself, the tactful way to do this is through the courts to the judge, not in equally unsubstantiated tit-for-tat rhetoric to the press.
A proper read through of the suit suggests the plaintiffs’s key concern really is about Tesla’s overall tendency to hype-up tech which isn’t quite there yet for marketing purposes, while simultaneously using customers as lab rats. That seems a fairly legitimate concern to us, not least because no other automaker would be so bold as to sell or promote a product which isn’t operational yet.
From the suit:
As Dictionary.com states, vaporware is “[c]omputer software that is advertised but still nonexistent.” Tesla advertised vaporware to consumers, knowing full well that this particular come-on would particularly excite its target market of high-tech aficionados.
Standard Safety Features 22. Tesla’s website describes its “Standard Safety Features” to include: (1) Automatic Emergency Braking; (2) Front Collision Warning; (3) Side Collision Warning; and (4) Auto High Beams.4 Customers who ordered their cars from approximately mid-October 2016 through midJanuary 2017 were told these features would “become available in December 2016 and roll out through over-the-air software updates[.]” In mid-January 2017, Tesla modified its website to state: “These active safety technologies, including collision avoidance and automatic emergency braking, have begun rolling out through over-the-air updates.” Many customers, including Plaintiffs in this action, were shocked to discover these features did not exist when they picked up their cars, and as yet, only one of the specifically referenced features have not been implemented.
Tesla had to know how deeply flawed, raw, and untested the software was and remains. In fact, new vehicles equipped with Tesla’s newest software still do not have some of the basic safety features that are standard features of cars equipped with the older software—and that are supposed to be standard features of Tesla’s newest vehicles, too. Yet Tesla promised imminent safety-enhanced and auto-driving nirvana.
The plaintiffs then refer to some online videos and articles reflecting how the newly-updated Tesla cars were driving in an extremely haphazard manner. With regards to one specific article which reported Tesla’s admission that some of the software may still be in beta mode, the plaintiffs state:
In this same article, Tesla admits that the software is in beta phase. But this was not communicated on Tesla’s website or its promotional materials before or at the time of purchase. And while the software seems to be improving due to the data collected by way of human testers such as those featured in this article, it may be that there are fundamental flaws in the software.
Relatedly, they argue:
What is more, Tesla was far behind at least one self-driving competitor in terms of real-world testing of AP2.0 even as it began selling it to consumers with the promise that it soon would perform as advertised.18 While that competitor had logged “635,000 fully autonomous miles in California last year, with just 124 hand-offs to safety drivers,” Tesla “reported zero autonomous miles in 2015, and only 550 miles in 2016 — during which a safety driver had to take control of the car 182 times.” Id. (emphasis added). This comparison, too, speaks to Tesla’s fundamental deceptiveness in the marketing and sale of AP2.0.
The validity of the plaintiffs’ case will no doubt be determined by legal proceedings. But one thing that should seem clear to everyone is that beta-testing self-driving software on human users is entirely different to beta-testing regular software in the market. What should also be clear is that basing a marketing strategy on the former is tantamount to corporate suicide in any normal field of operation.
But this of course is Silicon Valley. Home of the brave, the bold and the free to do whatever they want as long as there’s a stage, a clicker and a powerpoint. And where, of course, it is expected that companies should move fast and break things (even if those things are people).
While we’re on the subject of vaporware and misleading promotional marketing gimmicks, this nugget from Facebook’s non-invasive brain-speech interface presentation the other day is also worth a highlight:
The project will rely on non-invasive sensors shipped at scale. Sensors would measure brain activity without signal distortions. There are no imaging sensors that can measure this way today. Facebook has a team of more than 60 scientists, integrators and engineers working on the project.
And yet, weirdly enough, Facebook’s fake news filters didn’t flag any of this as potentially exaggerated or disputed. Go figure.
A postcard from Elon Musk’s future – FT Alphaville
Barclays considers Elon Musk a potential commodity ‘black swan’ of 2017 – FT Alphaville
“But whenever Elon makes a big splash announcement, there is a very high probability that the true intent is to mask some other far less favorable news” – Streetwise Prof
Doubling up on Mars – FT Alphaville
Self-driving cars discover the limits of autonomy – FT