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Elon Musk Gets Candid About Self-Driving
If you want to know what Elon Musk thinks about something, there's a good chance there's a tweet for that. Usually, those tweets are good for their entertainment value, even if they don't always seem completely connected to reality. Let's just say that hyperbole is one of Musk's secret weapons.
That's mostly fine. It certainly works well for Musk, who has become one of the richest men on the planet as shares of Tesla have soared over the past two years. It's gotten him in trouble a few times, like when he tweeted that he had the funding in place to take the world's most valuable automaker private. Musk said later that it was a joke, but the Securities Exchange Commission wasn't a fan.
On Monday, Musk shared his thoughts about Tesla's current beta software for what the company calls "full self-driving." That's the capability that Musk has touted as the future of transportation--in exchange for $10,000, of course.
Of course, right now, "full self-driving" isn't actually a feature that allows a car to fully drive itself. That's confusing, I know. Tesla's website says that "currently enabled features require active driver supervision and do not make the vehicle autonomous."
That's a bit of a disconnect from Musk's tweets about Tesla's self-driving vehicle initiative, which have been what I think anyone would call "optimistic." On more than one occasion, Musk has promised the feature by a specific deadline, all of which have passed already. In July, Musk promised the feature would be "shipping soon," before admitting that he "didn't expect it to be so hard."
Now, Musk has gone even further. "FSD Beta 9.2 is actually not great imo." Musk said in response to a video of automotive engineer Sandy Munro talking about the latest version. That seems like a strange thing to admit about something you've made your life's mission.
There's a lot to unpack in Musk's tweet, but it almost looks like Musk is throwing his team under the bus. At a minimum, it doesn't exactly inspire a lot of confidence in a feature that you trust with your life.
But Musk didn't stop with that brutal admission. Instead, he went on to say that the "Autopilot/AI team is rallying to improve as fast as possible. We're trying to have a single stack for both highway & city streets, but it requires massive NN retraining."
That last sentence is important from a technical standpoint, but it's the first part that I think matters most. That's that part where Musk credits his team with "rallying to improve as fast as possible."
I've written many times about how Musk's showmanship isn't always the best strategy. The more often you make promises you can't keep, the more it damages your credibility, and considering that he is literally in the business of building vehicles that drive themselves--not to mention a side hustle building rocket ships that carry people to space--credibility is pretty important.
I'm not saying that Musk hasn't been successful--more than almost anyone else of his generation, he's tackling enormous problems and trying to come up with solutions. Some of them are brilliant. I'm just suggesting he's sometimes a bit ahead of the solutions, which makes it harder to take him seriously.
In this case, however, I have to give him credit. That's exactly the kind of response we should expect from leaders. "Yep, this thing we're building is really hard, and honestly, we're not there yet," shouldn't be hard for leaders to admit, but it is.
By default, most leaders want to paint the best possible picture of their product or business, even if it bears little resemblance to reality or the experience of their customers. Instead, a little honesty and--dare I say--humility, goes a long way.
Maybe the reason it's so effective for Musk is that it's so entirely uncharacteristic. It's not at all what we've come to expect. Instead of over-promising and underdelivering--or not delivering at all--Musk is making a brutal admission about the fact that the company's full self-driving needs some work.
More importantly, however, he's pointing at the people who are working on the problem and praising their efforts publicly. He's admitting that the feature isn't there yet, but makes it clear that he has full confidence in his team.
Musk's tweet also has the benefit of creating expectations in a way that sets his team up for success. That's something every single leader should do more of.
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