Sure, plenty of carmakers have said they're building EVs, but no one has actually delivered them at scale. Only a few have delivered anything at all. That's part of the reason Tesla is the most valuable carmaker on earth, worth more than its next five competitors combined, despite selling only one vehicle for every 10 that Volkswagen or Toyota sells.
The interesting thing, however, is that building a quality EV isn't Musk's real goal. He hasn't made a secret of the fact that his real goal is to build cars that can drive themselves.
A recent tweet from Musk in response to a user suggestion is revealing in that it gives us insight into how he really thinks about the people who buy Teslas. The tweet linked to a suggestion about how to improve the vehicle's interface after a recent software update drew criticism from drivers over the way it hid important controls like the defroster or seat warmers.
A designer created a mockup of the interface that would make it easier for drivers to interact with their vehicle by giving them more control over the input. In response, Musk tweeted the following:
"Almost all input is error. Car should do the right thing automatically."
Those first five words are interesting because they betray a deeper philosophy about the cars Tesla is building and the people who buy them. If you have to ask your car to do something, it isn't because it wasn't smart enough to already know. If you want the heated seats to come on, it's kind of nice to just be able to press a button,
Besides, who defines what the "right thing" is? Is it the thing that the driver wants it to do? Is it the thing that someone in an engineering lab somewhere decides is the optimal response?
I think what Musk is saying is that anytime a human has to interact with a vehicle, it's because the vehicle didn't already know what to do. In Musk's view, that qualifies as an error.
The thing is, Tesla owners have largely panned the most recent software update. More than that, they overwhelmingly favored the mock overhaul. I think that's because people want to have easy access to certain controls and settings and features.
If your argument is that users shouldn't need an interface to give the car instructions because the car will just know what to do, that's certainly a lofty goal. It might even be one worth pursuing. The thing is, that's not how it works--at least not now.
Cars don't do the right thing automatically. Never mind that cars aren't capable of navigating on their own; they don't even know whether you want the heat turned on. Even if they did, humans are fickle and change their minds. That's not an error, it's just the way people work.
Cars can't possibly do the "right thing," because I'm not even sure who decides what the right thing is in any given situation. The idea that there's a perfect algorithm for how a car should react to any circumstance just doesn't line up with reality.
Sure, Tesla is working to make smarter cars, but even the smartest computers we use every day aren't capable of passing that high bar. Never mind that it's one thing if Siri misunderstands your request and starts playing the wrong song on your iPhone. Your iPhone isn't 5,000 pounds and won't kill someone if it makes a mistake.
Perhaps there's an argument that if someone can crack the code of a vehicle that is capable of driving itself entirely, then that vehicle will be safer. The thing is, that assumes everyone is using a vehicle capable of the same. Otherwise, the safest car in the world can't stop someone else from running a red light and broadsiding you in an intersection.
Also, I can't help but think that Musk is overlooking the reason a lot of people buy cars--they really like driving them. Sure, traffic is a pain. Sure, the morning commute gets a little old day after day. A future where you can get into a vehicle, tell it where you want to go, and lie back and read a book while the car does all the work sounds really cool, but it isn't ever going to be the only option, and it shouldn't be.
Ultimately, what Musk is saying is that your car should know better. In order for that to be true, what he's really saying is that Tesla knows better than you do. Except, if the thing you're expecting the car to do is to turn on the defroster, it's pretty convenient to just, well, turn on the defroster. The fact that Musk thinks that request is an error is a bad sign for Tesla owners.