The timing of Elon Musk’s plan to promote gains Tesla is making in artificial intelligence and as a leader in the technology this week has grown somewhat awkward as the billionaire CEO’s event will take place amid signs that tougher U.S. government scrutiny may be on the way.
Tesla is scheduled to livestream its “AI Day” event on Aug. 19, likely starting at 5 p.m. Eastern time. As was the case for 2020’s “Battery Day” presentation and 2019’s “Autonomy Day,” analysts and investors have been invited to join though, so far, news outlets have not been asked to participate.
Tesla AI Day August 19th
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 29, 2021
The company’s tech showcase comes days after the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opened up its biggest investigation to date of Tesla’s Autopilot feature, centered around 11 crashes with emergency vehicles that resulted in numerous injuries and at least one fatality. In each of the collisions, either Autopilot or Tesla’s Traffic Aware Cruise Control were found to be in use. Then on Aug. 18 two U.S. Senate Democrats, Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, asked the Federal Trade Commission to probe Tesla’s use of the terms Autopilot and Full Self Driving for its partially automated technology.
“Tesla’s marketing has repeatedly overstated the capabilities of its vehicles, and these statements increasingly pose a threat to motorists and other users of the road,” the senators said in a letter to FTC Chair Lina Khan. “Accordingly, we urge you to open an investigation into potentially deceptive and unfair practices in Tesla’s advertising and marketing of its driving automation systems and take appropriate enforcement action to ensure the safety of all drivers on the road.”
Tesla, which no longer has a PR team, didn’t respond to a request for comment, nor has it responded on its website or social media channels.
Autopilot, a feature of electric Teslas the company has promoted since 2014, has been linked to dozens of crashes and multiple fatalities, both in the U.S. and abroad. Those include a 2016 crash in Florida that killed Model S driver Joshua Brown and a fatal 2018 accident involving Silicon Valley engineer Walther Huang. NHTSA in January 2017 concluded its investigation into Brown’s crash without finding Tesla at fault. The family of the Model X driver Huang is suing Tesla, saying Autopilot is defective technology.
Tesla fan site Electrek, which apparently obtained an AI Day invitation, provided a few details about what to expect. “This invite-only event will feature a keynote by Elon, hardware and software demos from Tesla engineers, test rides in Model S Plaid, and more,” it said, citing the invitation. “Attendees will be among the first to see our latest developments in supercomputing and neural network training. They will also get an inside look at what’s next for AI at Tesla beyond our vehicle fleet.”
Though news of the NHTSA investigation appeared to hammer Tesla shares earlier this week, the stock rose Wednesday, closing up 3.5% at $688.99 in Nasdaq trading. It’s down 2.4% so far this year.
“We believe Thursday became a much more important event for Tesla in light of this week’s FSD U.S. probe in order to show the software advancements and safety progress Tesla is aiming for over the next decade,” said Dan Ives, an equity analyst for Wedbush Securities. “The Street will be watching this event closely for hints around the future of AI, FSD, and technology advancements that further differentiates Tesla from rising competition in the EV space.”
Tesla’s software and AI capabilities are key to the “long-term bull thesis” for the company, said Ives, who expects to hear updates on the Dojo supercomputer it’s working on. “This week has been another tough week for Tesla and the Street needs some good news heading into this AI event.”
Safety advocates have raised concerns that the Autopilot name suggests the driver-assistance feature can lead many users to place too much confidence in it. That’s been borne out by numerous Tesla owners posting videos over the years treating Autopilot as an autonomous system, with some sleeping at the wheel or even sitting in the back seat while traveling down the highway. Autopilot is an 2 Advanced Driver Assistance System, or ADAS, and the company warns users that they are to remain ready to take control of the vehicle at all times.
A German court determined in 2020 that calling the system Autopilot was misleading and banned Tesla from using both that term and Full Self Driving for vehicles sold in that market.
“There are no fully autonomous vehicles currently available on the market,” Markey and Blumenthal said in their letter. “Understanding these limitations is essential, for when drivers’ expectations exceed their vehicle’s capabilities, serious and fatal accidents can and do result.”