Dear Elon Musk: You Need Me For the Self-Driving Tesla Cannonball Run

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

Alex Roy

Dear Elon:

Just over 100 years ago, Erwin “Cannonball” Baker drove a Stutz Bearcat from Los Angeles to New York City in 271 hours, ushering in the era of coast-to-coast endurance driving records that still bear his nickname. Although “Cannonballing” is often conflated with reckless driving, Baker’s feat—and his 142 records that followed—was intended to demonstrate the safety and reliability of the internal combustion technology that would transform the 20th century.

With your claim that a Tesla will make the first “full self-driving” cross-country run before the end of 2017, a new era is about to dawn, and with it a new series of records showcasing the electric and autonomous technologies that will transform the 21st.

Among all the potential benefits of self-driving cars, the moral imperative to reduce injuries and deaths caused by human driving towers above all others. Tesla already commands 40% of global press in the automotive sector; combined with the hope, fear and anticipation over the arrival of self-driving cars, the first Level 4 Cannonball Run record will be one of the most important events in the history of transportation, if not human history.

The public spectacle of a Tesla’s safe journey across the United States will likely become the hinge upon which public faith in autonomous driving will swing.

But only if the public believes it.

An edited video isn’t going to cut it.

Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence

Every great leap in the history of human and technological achievement is one that inspires those that follow to greater feats. Any such claim clouded with doubt only leads to disappointment, acrimony and loss of faith extending far beyond the original effort.

If the “full self-driving” Tesla Cannonball is to serve your broader goals, it is essential that the claim meet an incontrovertible evidentiary standard exceeding that of any prior effort — human or autonomous. Anything less harms not only Tesla, but industry-wide efforts to develop autonomous driving technologies that will save 1M+ lives a year. 

What follows is a summary of prior evidentiary standards, with one critical addition. Whereas the most effective demonstration of Level 4 autonomy would logically exclude any passengers from the vehicle, no less than two humans must be in that Tesla, for reasons I shall explain.

The History of Cannonball Evidentiary Standards

The history of Cannonball Run records is filled with wild claims, starting with Cannonball Baker himself. Who is to say that any or all of his 143 claimed records occurred as his Wiki suggests? The historical record is weak. Baker was paid by manufacturers for many of them, and often accompanied by witnesses in an era when journalism standards were even lower than those of most fake news sites today.

Baker’s presumed standard for his early records — alleged 3rd party “journalists” and some still images — would barely suffice for a Facebook boast today. Why are Baker’s early records still taken at face value? Probably because of the volume of reporting, the lack of modern recording methods, and the difficulty of refuting his claims.

Brock Yates’ multi-car “Cannonball Run” races (1971-1979) added multiple 3d party witnesses — real journalists, bystanders and rival teams — and fragmented film/video recordings. Time cards were punched at both ends, but record keeping was porous. Cheating was allegedly rampant, but the details have been lost to history, obscured by the popularity of the eponymous film with Burt Reynolds and Farrah Fawcett.

Alex Roy

The top secret U.S. Express races (1980-1983) were the first with real standards, partially due to the participation of now-famous tech figures like Will Wright and his co-driver, the futurist Richard Doherty, who was also the race organizer. They agreed that a time clock should be flown from the start to the finish, and that time cards, toll and fuel receipts be gathered at the end.

Despite these precautions, the record set in 1983 — an incredible 32 hours and 7 minutes — remained disputed until my book and a documentary on the topic were released. Many veterans from 1983 have suggested that no subsequent record would be valid unless VIN numbers were recorded at both ends.

Numerous silly claims were made over the next two decades, until mid-2007, when television personality Richard Rawlings — the Brian Williams of automotive — claimed he and co-driver Dennis Collins set a new record of 31 hours and 59 minutes, all without a shred of evidence. The media picked up his preposterous story, until my team went public later that year with our time of 31 hours and 4 minutes, backed by the largest amount of evidence ever shared publicly.

I was keenly aware of the necessity of incontrovertible proof, not only for our own credibility, but to deter any false claims that might follow. Given the limitations of video hardware, storage methods and bandwidth at the time, we resorted to multiple overlapping methods which could be easily corroborated:

  1. Time cards — w/clock flown from New York to LA
  2. All fuel/toll receipts
  3. 3rd Parties — including journalists from Wired & Jalopnik
  4. 3rd Parties — our attorneys, families, and veterans of the U.S. Express at both ends
  5. Spotter Plane — shooting stills/video during daylight hours
  6. In-Car Video — from multiple cameras, including thermal/night vision
  7. GPS Tracks — recorded on four Garmin GPS units, the only digital record employed

Despite these precautions, it took the editors of Wired and The New York Times several months to validate our claim.

Our evidentiary standard was so high that it deterred any other claims until 2013, when Ed Bolian & David Black claimed a run of 28 hours and 50 minutes. Their decision to eschew journalists and video led to some controversy, but once they made their GPS data and witness list public they were granted the credibility they deserve.

My most recent record—the 2016 Tesla EV/semi-autonomous Cannonball Run of 55 hours (including charging)—returned to the evidentiary standard we set in 2007, and no claims have been made since.

Impressive, but Tesla can and must do better. The world is watching. For every naysayer betting on your failure, countless more want you to succeed. Everyone knows which side I’m on.

The Evidentiary Standard Tesla Needs To Meet

Tesla’s upcoming claim needs to substantiated such that no critic can call it a hoax, and no competitor can subsequently claim to have beaten it by meeting a lower standard.

A 2017 record must use 2017 technology, which means exploiting the latest in bandwidth improvements, hardware miniaturization and social platforms. Anything omission in content gathering and propagation will be mercilessly exploited by a clickbait driven media and the kneejerk opposition of those who seek to gain from Tesla’s failure — real or perceived.

A Tesla “full-self driving” record therefore requires:

  1. Real-Time Streaming Video In-Car—uninterrupted, bandwidth permitting
  2. Real-Time GPS Tracking—available online, to the public

Throw in invitations to your most loyal fans, customers & the media:

   3. Predetermined Supercharging Stops—with multiple 3rd party witnesses

And then add the human glue:

   4. Passengers

Why are passengers essential? Because the goal of the full self-driving Tesla Cannonball isn’t merely a technological demonstration. Total elapsed time is irrelevant.

All that matters is trust.

Not the ten minutes of trust Uber and Waymo’s passengers place in a car driving them crosstown. I’m talking about trusting a Tesla to drive itself <3000 miles over three days, on the same route made mythic by Cannonball Baker himself. Nothing short of passengers — at least one of whom is not a Tesla employee — will suffice in demonstrating that trust.

Who Should Be In That Car

There are <10 journalists in the world with the writing skill, the technical knowledge, the audience and the desire to be part of this historic effort. The appropriate passengers must also be comfortable sleeping, writing, managing media and broadcasting from a moving vehicle not under their control for just under two days.

That probably cuts the number to five.

Among them, I’m the only one with any relevant endurance driving or racing experience, including a masochistic 41 hour run in a Morgan 3-Wheeler in wintertime, and multiple semi-autonomous driving records set in the USA, Sweden and Spain, in both Teslas and other brands. I wrote the deepest comparison between Tesla Autopilot and rivals’ suites to date, which has been widely circulated within Tesla, and cited by many owners as having compelled them to buy one.

Given my unique contribution to the history of endurance driving records, my credibility among both supporters and skeptics of self-driving cars, my specialized knowledge of autonomous driving technology, and my position as Editor-at-Large for Time’s automotive portal The Drive, I hope you will see the value of having me in the car that will make history.

Two days is a long time to spend in a car alone. I hope you choose to send a second person I can get along with. Here’s an idea: you take the back seat, and I’ll take the front. We can always play Civ head-to-head to pass the time.

Love & kisses,

Alex

Alex Roy is Editor-at-Large for The Drive, author of The Driver, founder of Polizei 144, and has set numerous endurance driving records, including the 2007 Transcontinental “Cannonball Run” Record in 31 hours & 4 minutes. You may follow him on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.