I’ve been a mum for a relatively short time; I’m not exactly an expert when it comes to this whole parenting thing. Still, there is one piece of advice I can confidently dole out: don’t instruct your child to run in front of a moving vehicle so that you can win an argument with strangers on the internet. Elon Musk obsessives, I’m looking at you.
This month, a software CEO called Dan O’Dowd, who is hellbent on trying to ban Tesla’s “full self-driving” programme, launched an ad campaign claiming that if you put a Tesla in this mode it will mow down children. He based this assertion on a test he ran using a child-sized mannequin dressed in a safety vest, which came to a sticky end in the middle of a road in California.
Musk’s fans, who will not tolerate any criticism of the billionaire, immediately took issue with O’Dowd’s assertions and decided to conduct their own tests – using a real child.
“Is there anyone in the Bay Area with a child who can run in front of my car on Full Self-Driving Beta to make a point? I promise I won’t run them over …” tweeted Omar Qazi, a Tesla shareholder and prominent Musk fan, adding: “(This is a serious request).” Rather than talking some sense into the guy, his followers eagerly engaged; a day after his initial tweet, Qazi announced that he had found a volunteer. “They just have to convince their wife,” he added.
The volunteer appears to have been a Tesla investor called Tad Park, who proceeded to direct a Model 3 Tesla at 8mph towards one of his children. The car, which was in self-driving mode, slowed down and didn’t strike his kid. Hurrah! Park filmed the entire thing and uploaded it to YouTube. It has since been removed because, as a YouTube spokesperson told CNBC last week, the social platform “doesn’t allow content showing a minor participating in dangerous activities or encouraging minors to do dangerous activities”. Assuming the role of a crash-test dummy because your dad wants to “make a point” very much falls into the category of “dangerous activities”.
Park, I’m sorry to say, was not the only parent who decided it was a good idea to rope their child into amateur vehicle-testing in order to stick it to Tesla’s critics. A guy called Carmine Cupani reportedly got his 11-year-old son to stand in the path of his Tesla as it was doing 35mph on “full self-driving” mode in a car park. Demonstrating his commitment to the scientific process, Cupani then did another test, on a road, using his son as the target. For this one, he used Autopilot, which is Tesla’s less sophisticated driver-assist software. His son survived both tests and now has lots of fun stories to tell his friends about that time Dad risked committing aggravated vehicular manslaughter in order to prove his loyalty to a car company.
While Park and Cupani’s kids emerged from their fathers’ experiments unscathed, both men demonstrated frighteningly poor judgment. But they are not the real problem here. The real problem is that Musk – a man addicted to overpromising – and Tesla have dangerously overhyped the capabilities of self-driving technology.
It is incredibly misleading to describe a driver-assist feature that requires an attentive human driver at all times in order to safely function as “full self-driving” technology. This is not simply my opinion; the California Department of Motor Vehicles filed a complaint this month with the state, saying that Tesla’s descriptions of its Autopilot and “full self-driving” features were “deceptive”.
Now, before Musk’s rabid fans start trolling me for pointing out the obvious, let me just say: this isn’t a hit piece. It is a “please don’t risk hitting kids with your car because you are weirdly obsessed with Elon Musk” piece.
Arwa Mahdawi is a Guardian columnist
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