To examine each time one of Tesla CEO and SpaceX founder Elon Musk’s outlandish assurances is contradicted by reality would take many more hours than the allotted time for “Elon Musk’s Crash Course.” His congregation of fans thinks he can do no wrong, but his horrible reputation as an employer could fuel a bigger limited series (which, let’s face it, will happen one day).
Until then, we’ve got works like this entry in FX’s “New York Times Presents” series, plus tons of stories describing, for example, the segregated and racially hostile conditions at Tesla’s Fremont factory. .
Or SpaceX’s reckless takeover of the coastal Texas city where its rocket production facility and test site are located. (“For better or worse, Boca Chica now belongs to Elon,” a Texas Monthly article published a year ago resignedly concedes.)
Then there’s the ongoing concern surrounding its impending acquisition of Twitter which, if it goes through, threatens and promises to place control of the world’s most ubiquitous communications platform in its hands, and probably without too much surveillance.
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“Elon Musk’s Crash Course” isn’t about Twitter, though the platform does get a prominent mention about 58 minutes later, mostly to show how he’s exploiting it to boost his stardom. Given the current anxiety surrounding Musk’s impending takeover of the social media giant, I’m sure many will wish this episode was ripped into this story instead of the potentially dangerous flaws in Tesla’s Autopilot system.
It all goes back to the central sentiment of Musk’s favorite mantra, quoted by former Tesla Chairman Jon McNeill: “History is changed by unreasonable men.”
Wait for the first 15 minutes, though, and it’s easy to extrapolate that Musk carries the same arrogance and recklessness in all of his endeavors, whether he’s promising unfettered free speech on Twitter or declaring that the Self-driving car technology is essentially “problem solved” when reality has proven it isn’t.
It all goes back to the central sentiment of Musk’s favorite mantra, quoted by former Tesla Chairman Jon McNeill: “History is changed by unreasonable men.” It is not at all surprising that the richest man in the world considers this a virtue.
Director Emma Schwartz, who builds the episode around reporting by Cade Metz and Neal Boudette in The New York Times, begins the episode by showing the human cost of such men’s desire to be immortalized.
The first person to pay that price was Josh Brown, a veteran tech enthusiast from Canton, Ohio. Brown chronicled his experiences with his Tesla’s Autopilot feature in a series of videos showing him testing how his vehicle reacted to various situations on the road. Musk shared one of Brown’s videos on his Twitter feed, making it go viral.
Shortly after, in May 2016, Brown was killed in a crash on a Florida highway resulting from a tractor-trailer turning left in front of his car and the car failing to apply the brakes. The episode opens with photos of that wreckage, showing the remains of Brown’s Tesla, completely sheared off, as the disturbing sound of crash-related 911 calls playing in the background.
Brown was the first known death in a supposedly self-driving car. He wouldn’t be the last. And proving his own unreasonableness, Musk and Tesla’s first reaction was to blame user error and launch false speculation that Brown was not paying attention to the road.
Starting the documentary at the heart of this wreckage establishes its slant, which you can be sure Musk will point out if he cares to comment on it. Musk hasn’t responded to multiple interview requests, the filmmaker says at the end, though there’s plenty of footage of public events and interviews to draw on. Some of these videos are further contextualized by former Tesla engineers who worked for the company around the same time as Brown’s fatal crash. Each man’s statements are measured; none inspire confidence in the integrity of Musk or Autopilot.
Raven Jiang in The New York Times Presents “The Crash Course of Elon Musk” (FX)
The billionaire’s cult fanbase isn’t going to be happy with Elon Musk’s “Crash Course,” obviously even Schwartz’s work is less of a teardown than a push. It works best as a quick primer on who Musk is, walking through his origin story as a programmer whiz with the goal of shaping the internet and an entrepreneur who built his fortune by founding, selling and building companies. news. (Among its most used creations is PayPal, for example.)
But most people are aware of the man’s profile and shudder at his giddy insistence on grabbing the limelight. In this regard, Schwartz is careful to keep the film’s emotional tone from falling into the red, but the result is that he often feels bloodless.
One of the reasons people are infatuated with Musk is because he says cool things and makes you believe in them.
Instead, “Elon Musk’s Crash Course” uses Musk’s biggest claims against him, showing the days when his guarantees were too big for his engineers to achieve. Anyone who agrees to be interviewed, Raven Jiang, observes that his time working at Tesla caused him to question the morality of his mission seeing his teammates being fired and the excuses about Autopilot failures being sold to the public.
Without succumbing to too much flash, Schwartz curates “Elon Musk’s Crash Course” to connect Musk’s corporate ethics and pressure on engineers to consumers who can live or die by his products. Two of them, Tesla beta tester Kim Paquette and Alex Poulos, who own one of his cars, capture a range of emotions in their testimonials. Paquette is enthusiastic, touting the uniqueness of the Tesla community among car owners. Poulos is less so, mainly because, as he says, he was sold a car that was supposed to be self-driving only to realize that wasn’t true and it’s unlikely to be soon.
He also gives us a glimpse into the mind of Musk’s devoted followers, explaining that he used to put the man on a pedestal. From the way he shares this observation, that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore.
Tesla’s New York Times Showcase Features “Elon Musk’s Crash Course” (FX)It also demonstrates Musk’s charisma both within his company and to the public. A former project manager explains that one of the reasons people are infatuated with Musk is because he says cool things and makes you believe them.
Metz backs that up, tying it to Musk’s willingness to test huge gray areas in innovation: “It’s very easy for him to say anything, and nobody’s controlling him.” (Tesla is currently the subject of two federal investigations related to Autopilot.)
At one point, McNeill recalls speaking to a Tesla investor who also had a large stake in Big Pharma who described the path ahead for the company as virtuous but difficult. In the pharmaceutical industry, the man explained, people in drug trials are expected to die, but those deaths happen outside the spotlight. While autopilot errors will happen on the highway, and everyone will see them.
These days, however, it’s impossible to guess whether consumers would be put off by this. Brown died in 2016, and others suffered fatal crashes believed to be linked to Autopilot malfunctions, and the automaker’s trillion-dollar valuation barely suffered a bump. Teslas remain among the most sought-after cars on the road thanks in part to the aura of success and excess that Musk cultivates.
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Apply the same corporate approach to how Musk could potentially run Twitter, and you’ll see why its responsible and reasonable users are concerned about the likely increase in harassment, doxxing, and the proliferation of misinformation.
The argument is that Twitter is a communication platform. The risk posed by self-driving car technology involves humans driving and drivers sharing the road with them.
People saw Josh Brown die in front of them, it’s true. They won’t see dozens of people radicalized, perhaps to the point of killing other people or fomenting an insurrection. And when that happens, and the path is shown to lead to or via Twitter, how easily will Musk deny his guilt instead of taking action to prevent future violence or attacks on democracy?
What this documentary shows us is not encouraging, even if it helps us to better understand the thought of a man described as wanting to “make a dent in the world”. We simply won’t know how well the world can recover from this impact until it happens.
“Elon Musk’s Crash Course” airs Friday, May 20 at 10 p.m. on FX and Hulu. Watch a trailer below, via YouTube.
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