All the News That’s Fit to Print, The New York Times famously has promised since 1896. These days, however, a more apt slogan for media is Any Gripe That Gets a Click.
Case in point: Tesla the Toddler Killer. It looked like real news and was taken seriously enough to prompt the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) to involve itself in the matter. Yet, this wasn’t really news at all. It was a planted, anti-Tesla pseudo-event, which media did little to assess or reveal.
The non-story story: a video of a supposed road test showed a Tesla Model Y on self- driving software plowing through a 3-foot-tall mannequin, meant to represent a toddler standing in the middle the street. But the video wasn’t from any NHTSA test: it dates back to last January, and it was taken by a bystander at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. A vendor touting its anti-collision software ran an unscientific demonstration of a Lexus vs. a Tesla.
For the next seven months, the video went unnoticed, and then it got picked up by the $TSLAQ crowd on Twitter, a group of short sellers betting Tesla stock will plunge and doing whatever they can to make that happen. So far, they have lost billions of dollars doing so.
The video went viral two weeks ago, drawing more than two million views and provoking a torrent of headlines and commentary in the Twitter-verse. Then a group called the Dawn Project released a second video, featuring its own supposedly scientific test of three tries for the Tesla, replicating the results of the first video.
The group’s founder, Dan O’Dowd, tweeted out his video on August 9 at 8 a.m., saying “Our new safety test” shows Teslas “will indiscriminately mow down children.” He demanded that NHTSA ban Tesla’s system until Musk proves otherwise. He got over 900,000 views.
O’Dowd founded the Dawn Project to oppose the “reckless deployment of Tesla’s Full Service Drive software on our roads,” as the group’s website says. He is a self-claimed billionaire and the founder and CEO of Green Hills Software, which provides automated driving software to Tesla rivals, such as Ford. He is running for the U.S. Senate in California, primarily as a platform for bashing Tesla.
An hour after O’Dowd’s tweet, another prominent Tesla critic weighed in: a trader named Taylor Ogan. His tweet, which included the first video, declared: “It’s 2022, and Teslas still aren’t stopping for children.” @TaylorOgan has 10,700 followers; his tweet drew 213,000 “likes” and 25,000 retweets. The 19-second clip now is up past more than 13 million views.
Ogan is the founder and CEO of Snow Bull Capital, a tech hedge fund. On Twitter, he trashes Tesla by playing up isolated incidents, or any downside he can find.
A Tesla fan on Twitter (@WholeMarsBlog) then asked his 130,000 followers: “Is there anyone in the Bay Area with a child who can run in front of my car on Full Self-Driving Beta to make a point? I promise I won’t run them over...” He later posted a YouTube video of his test using real children, showing the Tesla stopping safely; a few others followed.
This prompted a warning from the scolds at NHTSA on August 17, citing their own superior “controlled procedures” for testing and saying “it could be highly dangerous for anyone to attempt to test vehicle technologies on their own,” as Bloomberg reported.
Like Twitter itself, NHTSA seems to be a bit obsessed with Elon Musk and Tesla. That likely owes to Mr. Musk’s decision to beta-test his self-driving FSD system using 100,000 Tesla drivers without seeking permission from the agency.
NHTSA has two investigations of Tesla and its self-driving software underway. The agency has reviewed 191 crashes involving Tesla vehicles, which seems like a pretty paltry number considering there are a million Teslas on the road.
Maybe the agency should worry about the bigger picture. Some 6.5 million cars are involved in accidents in the U.S. each year. In 2021, deaths hit a 16-year high at almost 43,000, and in the first quarter, almost 10,000 more died, marking a 20-year high.
Tesla has nothing to do with this national crisis. Experts say high and drunk drivers account for one-third of the deaths, and Tesla might be able to help with that. Its FSD system surely is far safer than any drunk driver. But NHTSA and the media prefer to hound Tesla and Elon Musk in their never-ending quest to find something wrong. So, the non-stories about Tesla will continue, and the media will keep ignoring the underlying facts when they are inconvenient.
The media could devote more attention to the surge in driving deaths nationwide, but those stories would lack the sizzle of the Toddler Killer episode. Silly, contrived non-stories about controversial billionaires get far more clicks
Dennis Kneale is a media strategist and writer in New York. He spent more than 30 years at The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, CNBC, and Fox Business.