In the many years I’ve spent being body-roommates with myself, one thing I’ve learned is that not all of my ideas are good ideas. I’ve also learned that sometimes I still need to act on those less-good ideas, and I suppose that’s how I feel about my experience going on the YouTube show of Warren Redlich, an unashamed Tesla-stan, a man whose Twitter bio proclaims “Elon fanboy” and has the title “Bishop of Muskanity.”
So with that all known, whatever I endured, I did to myself.
This whole thing started after I wrote about another interview where Redlich claimed, without any actual evidence, that Waymo was using remote operators to drive its fleet of test vehicles and not its own internal autonomy systems.
After that story, Warren invited me to talk with him on his show. It seemed like a reasonable request, and there’s a valid point here: If I’m going to talk about hardcore Tesla fanatics and the peculiar culture around them, the least I could do is directly engage with a member of that community, at least once.
So that’s exactly what I did. And, I’ll be honest, I went into this a bit naively — I was expecting more of a conversation, a back-and-forth that would surely have a significant level of conflict, but still something that represented an exchange of ideas.
I never once considered that I’d actually change his mind — or that of any hardcore Tesla supporter. But I foolishly thought that perhaps something I have to say would be listened to and considered, a moment that went beyond an intense burst of cognition to formulate an immediate rebuttal or set up a new attack.
Clearly, I was an idiot.
Now, my idiocy doesn’t go so far as to negate any of the valid points I attempted to make: There are real issues with all Level 2 semi-automated systems; we need to focus more effort on driver monitoring and failover practices; autonomy is hard and will take time; and, yes, Tesla and Elon are fallible.
The full interview is here; asking any human with a soul to endure 100 minutes of a pair of aging dipshits yell about the issues with autonomous vehicles should likely be considered a war crime, but if you’re feeling a little self-flagellatey, here you go:
I should mention that before I went on I asked that what is published is the full, unedited version. I am not interested in any edited versions, by myself or Warren. Unfortunately, Warren has already made a “highlights” cut, and I’ve asked him to honor what I requested before I went on and just show the full one. But I can’t say for certain that’s what will happen, despite my requests.
If you watch the video there, it’s easy to see evidence of Warren’s career as a lawyer. In some ways, it was more of a cross-examination than a conversation, with a lot of shouting over me and his issuing inquiries like asking if I’d agree that the Tesla Model Y was the “best car in the world” or demanding that I estimate production numbers for Tesla or Ford.
I know that when he was asking about specific researchers and AI developers, like Tesla’s senior director of AI, Andrej Karpathy, and AI researcher Lex Fridman (who, let’s say, has his own issues), and I couldn’t place the names, that was effectively used to make me look like a fool.
Of course, most people can effectively make me look like a fool by handing me a yo-yo and just waiting a few minutes for the inevitable busted lip and blood-spattered drool, but remotely, I guess not thinking a lot about Lex Fridman will work in a pinch.
That said, it’s not like Warren ever gave any indication of knowing anything about any of the researchers or studies I mentioned, like the famous Mackworth vigilance problem or Dr. Missy Cummings at Duke or Dr. Michael Clamann at UNC, to shout out a few of the ones local to me.
Of course, that was hardly the point. And, I’m OK with my responses overall, given the circumstances. And I think I made my fundamental points: that Level 2 semi-automated systems have inherent flaws relating to how humans interact with them; that autonomy is complex and getting to Level 5 is still a good ways off; that better driver monitoring and failover/handoff solutions are desperately needed; and, yes, it’s possible that Elon and Tesla may, sometimes, be wrong.
There was no way I was going to have any of these ideas seriously considered, though, and I found that out pretty quickly. I was curious about what the discourse would be like with true Tesla stans, and it was made very clear: It’s highly adversarial, and anyone who has concerns about how Tesla approaches things is branded an enemy — immediately.
I’m referred to as a TESLAQ — a phrase I wasn’t aware of before — which means someone who is actively trying to get Tesla to go bankrupt. That is not, and never has been, and never will be, a goal of mine. That’s not how I work at all, and not an outcome I care about. But that’s how I’m branded, and everything I say gets cast and reduced to someone who is an enemy.
And, of course, the audience that tunes in to Warren’s channel is primarily made up of true believers and, as you can guess, sees me as an ignorant monster standing in the way of Elon and the lives he’ll save. The commentary reflects this.
That’s fine — you don’t write on the internet for a living and let yourself get hurt by enraged randos, though I do admire some of the thoroughness. Look at this comment, for example:
So I suppose I mentioned something about humans and driving and accidents that predicated this, which means that the person watching this video had to do a quick, furtive Google search for my name plus accidents, I guess, and they found this article from last year where an SUV driving the wrong way down the road almost hit me.
Using my two wet little round cameras and the squishy, moist computer they’re connected to in my head, I avoided the wreck, so I’m not sure that was the best example to pick. Still, that’s some hustle.
I also got, as you can imagine, plenty of emails and Twitter DMs and other comments, and I just want to share one of the more civil ones with you, ones that I think give a good bit of insight here. These are from a colossal thread of messages:
Here we see someone casting literally the richest man on Earth (or second, whatever) as an altruist who “sacrificed his last cent, and virtually all his adult hours on earth.” They’re also suggesting that criticizing Tesla enthusiast culture is the same as targeting “racial groups, religious groups, people with disabilities...”
It’s a car company. A for-profit carmaker. This is not a reasonable comparison.
But, at least that person was attempting to make salient points. Much of the other commentary I’ve gotten has just harped on what an idiot I am or how much they hate my messy workshop/basement.
I expected all the attacks. What I’m not sure I was really ready for was the tone of my direct interactions. I’ll assume Redlich is a good person, fundamentally. When I watched him talk about his kids, even when he was disparaging their driving skills, I recognized the subtle dad cues of a father who clearly loves his kids and wants the best for them.
And, I have no doubt that behind everything, what Warren wants is what we all want: a better world, with fewer people dying in car wrecks and transportation systems better for the environment. I think everyone’s essentially on the same page here.
What I felt and saw, though, was that somewhere in this journey, Warren has taken a detour. Talking with Warren reminded me of interactions I had with a number of people in various infamous cults (and, you know, Herbalife) when I lived in LA; very quickly into any exchange that contradicts their fundamental belief system you can see a switch into a fierce attack-and-defend mode, a certain determined sightlessness in their eyes as they endure whatever you’re saying, ruthlessly culling your words for the next weapon that can be used to counter back, hard and decisively.
It may be effective from the perspective of the mechanics of effectively arguing, but there’s no actual consideration there, only fierce defense of the chosen orthodoxy.
When I write about Tesla stans now and I suggest that many interactions feel cult-like, I think I’ve earned at least a bit of the right to suggest this, having engaged directly.
I’m not saying this to be cruel, or to discount Tesla as a company or its technology, which I will always evaluate on its own merits. And I’m never going to presume to tell anyone what to love. If for Warren that’s Elon Musk, then Warren has every right to let Elon be the primary motivational force in his life and wear his shirts and spend his time defending him from any detractor, regardless of intent.
I hope he, and all of the significant, dedicated, fierce cadre of Tesla stans are finding what they need to be happy in all this, somehow. It feels desperate and hollow and baffling to me, but fundamentally what I think on this point doesn’t matter.
I’ll continue reporting on Tesla with honesty, and I’ll keep opining on what I think of its approaches and methods unabated.
And, perhaps there’s some benefit to that. Among all the angry responses reminding me of how significant the degrees to which I suck are, I got this:
There’s a few people like Dennis willing to at least consider some of my points, and I take comfort in that.