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'Elon Musk's Crash Course' shows the tragic cost of his leadership

Tesla CEO Elon Musk at Tesla's "Gigafactory" in Germany.
Patrick PleulAFP via Getty Images
Tesla CEO Elon Musk at Tesla's "Gigafactory" in Germany.

Just as his effort to buy Twitter has led the world to focus on Elon Musk's management style and business strategies, FX and The New York Times have stepped up with a documentary taking a close look at how Musk responded to crashes involving the Autopilot function in cars from his company, Tesla.

For those watching Musk's fitful attempt to buy Twitter, the film also serves as a pointed comparison; showing how his penchant for bold moves and provocative statements can lead fans to see what they want in his words – regardless of whether what he says is actually possible.

As part of FX's The New York Times Presents documentary series, Elon Musk's Crash Course suggests that Musk oversold the cars' self-driving capabilities, leading to public confusion over what it could actually do. And when federal authorities began an investigation into a fatal crash involving the technology, the program says Musk pressured officials to curb the investigation.

"He would say really cool things — like science fiction things – and he would make you believe that you could do it," said JT Stukes, a former senior product engineer at Tesla, noting how Musk's ambitious public statements turned into goals staffers would have to work hard to attain.

"The message is constantly going up and down," added Cade Metz, a technology correspondent for the New York Times. "Elon can change his mind at any moment. He can say one thing at one moment and then say something completely different."

A look at Musk's history and leadership style

The film features fresh interviews with a wide range of subjects, including former Tesla employees and corporate leaders, Times journalists and friends of a man killed in a 2016 crash while operating his Tesla's Autopilot function. Musk declined to sit for an interview, but is represented by loads of clips from public appearances and past interviews.

In one clip, Musk is shown calling the development of self-driving technology for cars a "solved problem"; in others, he predicts a near future where cars can park themselves and navigate long trips without driver assistance.

Times journalists and some critics say such bullish talk has confused consumers, leading them to think that Tesla's cars can be trusted to drive themselves. The film notes that Tesla used hype around its Autopilot system as a selling point to get consumers to buy its cars.

But Tesla insists drivers should keep hands on the steering wheel while Autopilot is operating, just in case the system fails to recognize a road hazard. (In one telling news clip, a CNN anchor asks: if drivers still must hold the steering wheel while Autopilot is on, "what's the point?")

Crashes involving Tesla's Autopilot function explicitly illustrate the high stakes involved. One man, Josh Brown, was killed when his car didn't recognize a tractor trailer crossing in front of the vehicle.

"People were trusting the system to do things it was not designed or capable of doing," Stukes said. "The fact that...[Brown's accident] happened was obviously tragic...But it was going to happen."

Questions about Tesla's development process

One former employee noted Musk had updates to the autopilot sent to his personal vehicles, so staffers wound up working to address his concerns instead of looking at larger issues. Another ex-employee said cameras the cars use to detect traffic and roadways had a blind spot where a small dog or small child might not be seen.

When the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration finally released its report on the accident which claimed Brown's life, it concluded the Autopilot system wasn't at fault, because it was an Advanced Driver Assistance System requiring the driver to pay attention during operation. The report also included an observation – which the film says was based on data from Tesla – that the company's cars with the auto-steering technology crashed 40% less than those without it, allowing Tesla to spin the report as a positive finding.

The film quoted one former employee, software engineer Raven Jiang, who was unsettled by how the system worked. "Sometimes it seems like people and companies were being rewarded, not for telling the truth, but in fact, for doing a bit of the opposite," he added.

Like a few other TV projects these days, the documentary zeroes in on the strategy employed by many Silicon Valley leaders to talk up the possibilities of their companies' products before their achievements are fully realized. It's a "fake it until you make it" style that allows companies to harness enthusiasm and capital to push toward goals which might otherwise seem impossible to reach.

But Elon Musk's Crash Course is a straightforward look at the dangers of such an approach when the product involved controls a speeding automobile.

And it asks us all the consider the possible damage from a system which tolerates – and even rewards — such risks in service of a powerful, wealthy business moguls chasing profits and glory.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.