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MarketWatch First Take: Elon Musk is just another car salesman

Tesla Inc.’s autonomous driving day was riddled with so many pie-in-the-sky statements and inaccuracies that Chief Executive Elon Musk is starting to look more like a huckster car salesman than the “genius” that his fans worship. Read More...

Tesla Inc.’s autonomous-driving showcase was riddled with so many pie-in-the-sky statements and inaccuracies that Chief Executive Elon Musk looks more like a huckster car salesman than the “genius” that his fans declare him to be.

To quickly recap: On Monday, Musk said at an event in Palo Alto, Calif., that by the end of 2020 there will be at least 1 million Teslas on the road acting as robotaxis with full, Level 5 self-driving capabilities, and that Tesla TSLA, -3.85%  owners could rent their cars out for an additional income of $30,000 a year, a sort of Uber meets Airbnb.

Full story: Tesla unveils ‘best in the world’ chip for self-driving cars, promises robo-taxi fleet

Level 5 is the highest level of autonomy, with no human intervention required at all. There are no Level 5 vehicles on the road today, and most automakers and tech companies have grown more cautious with their statements about full autonomy. But not Musk, who seems to think nothing of calling both his cars and even cars equipped with technology designed by his rivals as “fully self-driving” when they are simply not there yet.

Tesla cars run what is widely considered a Level 2 system — basically a driver-assist system that is a step up from cruise control — yet Tesla calls that system “Autopilot,” just one of many ways that Musk and Tesla oversell the capabilities of their cars. That kind of hyperbole can lead to drivers being overconfident and making deadly mistakes, potentially including a fatal accident in March 2018, when a driver had his hands off the wheel while driving on Autopilot.

Musk did counter his critics, and put up a slide off all his predictions that have come true to date. He added that the only criticism that is fair is that he is not “on time,” as he makes ever more audacious statements amid a decline in sales of his all-electric cars. Ahead of Wednesday’s earnings report for what has already been disclosed as a disappointing quarter, he is starting to seem as desperate as the guy standing on the used-car lot in most cities, desperate to make a sale before the end of the month.

More from Therese: Tech giants made so much money in 2018 that 2019 is bound to look pretty bad

Others took notice of what Musk was saying Monday, and hit back. Investors dropped the price of Tesla stock by 3.9% on the day, and consumer advocates and rivals jumped out as soon as the event ended. Perhaps the most scathing response came from Consumer Reports, which accused the company of treating the public like “guinea pigs” in its testing.

“We’ve heard promises of self-driving vehicles being just around the corner from Tesla before,” said David Friedman, vice president of advocacy for Consumer Reports, in a statement. “Claims about the company’s driving automation systems and safety are not backed up by the data, and it seems today’s presentations had more to do with investors than consumers’ safety.”

Friedman continued: “But instead of treating the public like guinea pigs, Tesla must clearly demonstrate a driving automation system that is substantially safer than what is available today, based on rigorous evidence that is transparently shared with regulators and consumers, and validated by independent third-parties.”

Partners for Automated Vehicle Education, a coalition that launched this year to educate the public about autonomous driving and is supported by automakers and tech companies working on autonomous cars, voiced concern with Musk’s descriptions.

“It is damaging to public discussion about advanced vehicle technologies — and potentially unsafe — to refer to vehicles now available for sale to the public using inaccurate terms,” they tweeted.

As Musk unveiled Tesla’s new chip designed for self-driving cars, he was giving out misleading statements about the competition, said Nvidia Corp. NVDA, +1.16% NVDA, +1.16% , which claimed that Tesla used inaccurate comparisons with Nvidia’s rival chips and system.

Musk also had disparaging comments about lidar technology, the laser-based sensor system that is in use by most companies trying to make self-driving cars, including Waymo, the self-driving-car business of Alphabet Inc. GOOGL, +0.99% GOOG, +1.01%  . Musk said that companies relying on lidar are “doomed.” Tesla has placed its bets on visual recognition, which Tesla executives said offers a richer picture for self-driving cars.

“Lidar is a fool’s errand and anyone relying on lidar is doomed. Doomed,” he said, likening it to an “expensive appendix.”

Lidar is believed to add another level of safety beyond just cameras, providing more information for a car to process. Officials at Waymo did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but Waymo is largely believed to be the farthest along in self-driving technology, since its cars have amassed the most number of fully autonomous driving hours.

“Elon is brilliant, but Tesla is not at the forefront of autonomy,” said Alex Lidow, the co-founder and CEO of Efficient Power Conversion, a privately held developer of transistors that are used in lidar systems, in an email. “Elon stands alone in promising full autonomy and bad-mouthing lidar.”

Previously: Tesla and Elon Musk are creating a credibility problem

Outlandish statements from Musk are nothing new and it is easy to remember things he predicted that never came true or were just blatantly false. In 2016, for example, he said that by the end of 2017, a Tesla could be driven from Los Angeles to New York without the need for a single touch on the steering wheel. That still hasn’t happened.

Despite not living up to previous statements, Musk is ramping up the rhetoric.

“The fundamental message that consumers should be taking today is that it’s financially insane to buy anything other than a Tesla,” Musk said. “It will be like owning a horse in three years.”

Musk likes to present Tesla as a new kind of car company, but with this display, he fits right into the stereotypical view of car dealers: Willing to say whatever it takes to get you to spend thousands of dollars on their cars. It is irresponsible and reprehensible, but what do you expect from a car salesman?

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