In 2012, German dance music producer Zedd released “Clarity,” a synth-pop stadium anthem with uplifting vocals by the singer Louisa Rose Allen, who goes by the nom de plume Foxes. It compresses all the appealing aspects of mainstream dance music into a globally appealing, inoffensive, four and a half minutes. It is a great song. It won a Grammy.
Zedd went on to iterate on that success, notably producing “Break Free” for Ariana Grande in 2014 and then “Starving” with Hailee Seinfeld in 2016. He’s led a prolific career, organizing an ACLU benefit concert in Los Angeles in early 2017. Zedd has been busy since his break-out song.
But to put it in his own words, Zedd said he would have been dead without his Tesla —and its Autopilot self-driving technology — the musician revealed this week on Twitter:
There’s lots of “bad” news about Teslas w/ autopilot crashing. Just to show the other side too: I once fell asleep driving home late at night on the highway (w/ autopilot on) and got woken up by it beeping + turning off music to wake me up. Would have prob been dead without it.
His endorsement of Autopilot caught the attention of Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who retweeted Zedd’s comments on Friday night with the message, “Glad you’re ok!”
The “bad” news to which the DJ refers are three deaths involving Autopilot: The most recent was in March when the driver — 38-year-old Apple software engineer Wei “Walter” Huang — had five seconds and about 500 feet to take the wheel before colliding with a concrete divider, but Tesla logs showed that no action was taken. The first reported fatal wreck was in early 2016 in China, and the second, in Florida later that spring, was thought to be the first fatal Autopilot wreck. (Non-fatal Autopilot wrecks are more frequent — here’s a recent case of an Autopilot-enabled Tesla crashing into a police car.)
After posting his life-saving endorsement on Thursday, Zedd added more detail in another tweet: “Had to tell my side of the story — I find it much more interesting to read about how many lives [self-driving] cars can [save] instead.”
To a critic who contended that Zedd risked the lives of everybody on the road by falling asleep and that Tesla “Autopilot” is a misnomer, the DJ replied, “I got in the car absolutely not tired. And on the way I got tired out of nowhere after an exhausting day. And the [Autopilot] was the reason why I got back safe. You can deny it all you want — there’s opinions and there’s facts.”
Zedd commented later, further defending Autopilot: “I’m just saying that while reporting about the crashes, it’s only fair to also report the far superior rate of accidents that were prevented thanks to auto pilot (like my example). Important to stay neutral I think.”
The idea that Autopilot prevents more accidents than causes is one Musk has often conveyed in an attempt to win the hearts and minds of skeptics: After the first Autopilot-related death in 2016, he noted that the technology will be far safer than human drivers, telling Fortune magazine then: “Indeed, if anyone bothered to do the math (obviously, you did not) they would realize that of the over 1M auto deaths per year worldwide, approximately half a million people would have been saved if the Tesla autopilot was universally available. Please, take 5 mins and do the bloody math before you write an article that misleads the public.”
That hasn’t stopped critics of Tesla though, who point out that Autopilot is still a technology-in-development, and the company needs to take greater steps to inform its drivers that Autopilot is a not a true autopilot, and is not meant to replace the human driver yet. Musk’s claims about a coast-to-coast Autopilot road trip — one where a human wouldn’t touch the wheel for the entire trip — create a false sense of security around what Autopilot can do, say Tesla critics.
In the aggregate, it seems likely that Autopilot technology — and other self-driving tech — will eventually reduce the 40,100 United States car deaths a year, but the public isn’t ready for the technology, even if the technology is ready for the public.
The point of Musk — and his supporters like Zedd — is that vehicle collisions prevented by autonomous tech aren’t as frequently covered as actual collisions, fatal or otherwise. It’s a complaint that’s long been made by all sorts of companies that make safety-focused products. For examlpe, few decades ago, stories about injuries from airbags were more common than stories about how airbags saved lives.
Any new technology faces a public relations problem when things don’t work as they should, especially if those missteps result in personal injury or death. It’s a problem that that companies like Tesla and Uber face as autonomous tech continues to develop openly in front of an unconvinced public.