Tesla’s Newest Rocky Patch
Tesla hasn’t been doing too hot in 2018. If there’s one thing that Tesla and its trailblazing CEO Elon Musk are known for, it’s the tightrope balancing routine between revolutionary and unfeasible. And in the past few months, Musk has demonstrated and reminded shareholders, investors, and the general public that he is not at all infallible when it comes to leading forays into new technologies on a big promise, stunning aesthetic, and far-reaching vision of the future.
Cracks in the Confidence and Potential of Self-Driving A.I. Systems
When Tesla first unveiled the feature of self-driving A.I., it took much of the world by storm. Indeed, a number of news outlets seemed to pick up and broadcast the story of how the uncanny A.I. system could predict and prevent accidents before most human drivers realized by producing a high-pitched series of beeps when it detected a high possibility of collision. But that was two years ago.
More recently, the safety of Tesla’s self-driving technology and A.I. has come under fire as a result of a string of deaths. A March 23 crash in Mountain View, California and a subsequent analysis revealed that the autopilot mode was engaged when the driver, who was asleep during the time of the accident, crashed and died. Despite Tesla indicating that the driver received multiple warnings and evidence that there was sufficient time to react, the fatal nature of the incident dampened a lot of enthusiasm for the technology.
Tesla even posted an update on its site clarifying the limitations of the technology in the aftermath, remarking that: “Tesla Autopilot does not prevent all accidents – such a standard would be impossible – but it makes them much less likely to occur.” It comes as no surprise that such an announcement about the reality and the current restrictions on autopilot technology revealed how A.I. systems were much less robust as many people initially perceived them to be.
However, the reputational damage to the perceived safety of A.I. systems employed in autopilot-like circumstances occurred at a broader scale, going beyond Tesla as an individual company. Uber, another prominent company making investments and advancements in research towards the automation of driving, saw involvement in the death of an Arizona resident as a result of that testing for automation.
The close proximity in the timeline of these two deaths related to self-driving technologies raised a number of red flags across the board for legislators, the automobile industry, and the general population. Major companies such as Toyota came out to denounce the lack of testing and the priority of consumer safety, redoubling its efforts to test edge cases before releasing commercial self-driving technology.
This correction in the confidence of drivers in Tesla’s technology manifested in a number of large declines in Tesla’s share price subsequent to the crash. Tesla’s financial issues were further compounded by a credit downgrade by Moody’s regarding its bonds. At one of the lowest points, almost a third of Tesla’s market value evaporated.
Musk’s Questionable Earnings Call
Another controversy arose out of Musk’s handling of Tesla’s earning call with analysts. In the call, Musk did not properly reply to some of the harder questions about how his business would handle funding challenges going forward. Musk further appeared dismissive of analysts who questioned some of his assertions by quoting the doubts of some of his colleagues.
An article from Bloomberg notes the disastrous impact of the call on investor confidence in Tesla, commenting on Musk’s aversion towards addressing his business’ financial elephant-in-the-room: “During a highly unusual earnings call, Tesla Inc.’s chief executive officer cut off analysts and got defensive about probing questions pertaining to the electric-car maker’s finances. The company burned through more than $1 billion for the third time in four quarters.”
Unsurprisingly, Tesla’s share prices fell noticeably after the call, with Musk eventually backtracking on his handling of the questions posed by analysts. He noted that it was “foolish” to have sidestepped and avoided the topic upon reflection. When taken in consideration with the bad press regarding Tesla’s self-driving technology and persistent doubts about the company’s ability to remain profitable and stable in the long-term, the comments served to exacerbate uncertainty in Musk’s executive leadership.
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