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Why Tesla insists calling it “autopilot” even though it’s clearly not that

Posted by / November 6, 2018

Teslas running on “autopilot” keep crashing. And crashing. And crashing. Despite the crashes, people continue to buy Teslas and run them on autopilot without a thought. Despite the multiple fatalities that have occurred from drivers turning on autopilot and the mentally checking out, Tesla defends the technology. According to a spokesperson:

“Tesla has always been clear that Autopilot doesn’t make the car impervious to all accidents and the issues described by Thatcham won’t be a problem for drivers using Autopilot correctly. The feedback that we get from our customers shows that they have a very clear understanding of what Autopilot is, how to properly use it, and what features it consists of. When using Autopilot, drivers are continuously reminded of their responsibility to keep their hands on the wheel and maintain control of the vehicle at all times. This is designed to prevent driver misuse, and is among the strongest driver-misuse safeguards of any kind on the road today.”

This is the video the company referred to:

So the issue actually is not with the technology. As is the case with so many things, the issue is with the user. In this case, users employ autopilot just as its name might suggest. It’s their fault, in other words, for trusting the name “autopilot,” which conjures up so many images of a self-driving car. They should be more careful. That is definitely a valid point on Tesla’s part.



Or they could change the name. A few letters would do the trick: copilot. You could give it a quirky name like Siri or Alexa. Maybe you could call it Nikola, in homage to the real Tesla. Maybe you could call it Tommy, a little prod at Nikola Tesla’s rival Thomas Edison. Who’s second string now, Tom?! 

But no. That’s not going to happen, because Tesla, following in Elon Musk’s intellectual footsteps, is cashing in on the technological utopian vision the company was built on. The name “Copilot” doesn’t imply the grandiose, world-changing product that fits into the company’s myth of itself. And make no mistake, myth is part of what they’re selling.

The situation is a bit like the recent news about a Jehovah’s Witness family that refused to give their child a blood transfusion despite a court order. I know, it sounds bananas, but hear me out. This Jehovah’s Witness article got 22.2 thousand upvotes on Reddit, and garnered over 2,500 comments––most of which berated the parents for being dogmatic morons (I’m paraphrasing, and believe it or not I’ve toned down the sentiment). Those parents  believed that God would heal their child, if only they let go and allowed it.  After all, it’s in the name––God. It’s what God does, right? He does the impossible. No, say many outsiders, that’s ridiculous and the whole religion is a cult.

Meanwhile, Tesla knowingly uses a misleading name for their product––one that implies total autonomy––but says that its users should be more discerning and any deaths aren’t the company’s fauult. At the same time, it sells a myth of a technological utopia. It is, in the words of Forbes, an “aspirational brand.” And so users who hope for a better future and want to participate in its creation buy the car and use it as they’ve been led to believe it would work. And some die as a result.

That’s an intense––and narrow!––analogy, I know. But my point is equally narrow: companies use quasi-religious ideas (mythologized pasts, utopian futures, miraculous results, and so on) to exploit consumers. 


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