The Dangerous Difference Between Electrek, Journalism, and Truth
Editor Frederic Lambert is to truth what Autopilot is to safety.
What's the difference between perfume and soap? One conceals a smell, the other removes its source. Even in an increasingly polarized world, we can all agree soap is a good thing. Perfume? Too much is pungent, and no matter how much you put on, the stench of filth will eventually catch up with you.
When it comes to covering Tesla, every day is that day at Electrek.
(Disclaimer: I don't own any Tesla stock, and other than a monthly paycheck from The Drive, I do not derive any benefit from writing about Tesla, which makes me a rarity among those writing about one of the world's most popular companies.)
What is Electrek? This is what they claim:
Innocent enough. But Electrek is far, far more than that. Electrek is a steaming heap of everything wrong in the media today. It is a site full of news but short on facts; filled with hot takes and short on perspective; a place where no pro-Tesla rumor is too small to publish, yet no anti-Tesla fact is large to omit; where motivations are murky, while accusations of bias are heatedly denied. The Editor-in-Chief blocks legitimate journalists on Twitter and answers ethics questions with shameless #WhatAboutism, every story ends with an Aw Shucks apologia for Elon Musk's latest foible, and the stench of hollow Tesla optimism conceals factual omissions that can be found one Google search away.
And this is coming from me, someone who doggedly roots for innovation, whatever the source. For all of Musk's mistakes, no one can deny he is attempting to grow a company that makes radically different cars, sold in a different way, and that his vision has captured the imagination of friends and foes alike.
Electrek propagandist-in-chief Frederic Lambert knows what he's doing. He can't not know. He's one of the most popular Telsa-centric sites on the web. He appears to be the most frequent beneficiary of Tesla leaks—real or not—often publishing "breaking news" before the major news outlets. And yet his seemingly willful omission of facts and context would be comical if he wasn't so frequently cited as a comprehensive source of information.
@JournalismStudents: if you want to see how news is shamelessly bent, packaged, framed, twisted and re-sprayed daily with sickly sweet perfume by Canada's most cynical Tesla fan, just take a look at how Lambert covered three recent Tesla stories:
Lambert starts by describing his ride-along with a Tesla owner who installed George Hotz's Comma.ai EON—a sub-$1000 aftermarket unit that adds lane-keeping functionality using crowdsourced data—to an early Model S lacking Autopilot hardware.
The story is rife with factual errors—including the usual conflation of the words "autonomous" and "automated"—but the true intellectual dishonesty is at the end in Lambert's "Electrek's Take" section, where he likes to claim objectivity with mild criticism, a little faint praise, a glaring omission, and a feeble non-conclusion.
"In my limited experience with the driver assist system, the auto-steering appeared really similar to Tesla’s Autosteer, which is impressive considering that Hotz built the software with a fairly small team over a relatively short period of time."
Yes, the Comma.ai system is similar to Tesla's Autosteer, but both have been evolving. I drove Hotz's personal car using his first generation solution back in 2016, and it was very close to Tesla's Gen 1 Autosteer, and that was when Comma's software was in its infancy. I tried a later generation Comma unit in 2017, and it was superior to Tesla's Autosteer at the time. Why? Because after Tesla stopped using Mobileye hardware, Autosteer's quality temporarily declined...until software updates brought it to where it is now. Depending on whom you ask, Autosteer today is almost as good as or on par with with Gen 1. Based on my recent use of a Comma unit on the 101 just south of San Francisco, Comma might have a slight lead, which is insanity given Hotz's limited resources and budget.
One might forgive Lambert skipping out on the context of Hotz's achievement, but then we have this outrageous conclusion:
"And on top of the auto-steering and dashcam features, [Comma's] EON also comes with Spotify and Waze, two features that Tesla owners (in North America for the first one) have wanted in their cars for a long time."
You know what else the Comma EON comes with that no Tesla has? A camera-based driver monitoring system, or DMS. A DMS is a critical safety feature for any driver assistance system that allows any hands-off use. People have died due to inattention to Autopilot warnings. Any safety expert or undertaker will tell you that a DMS can be the difference between life and death. There are two types: 1) a control DMS verifying hands-on-wheel, and 2) an awareness DMS verifying eyes on road. The first one is cheap, and can use capacitive touch (cheap and reliable) or a torque sensor (cheap and unreliable). Tesla uses a torque sensor. Comma uses an awareness DMS in the form of a camera. How well does it work? At its worst, it's better than a torque sensor. There's a reason Cadillac went with an awareness DMS. They work.
This is Tesla's blind spot, and they need to resolve it.
Does Lambert know this? If he does, he's presumably keeping quiet so as not to hurt his retirement nest egg. If he doesn't, he's negligent, and cannot be trusted to cover any automotive technology.
Lives are at stake, which makes the following headline especially offensive:
That "nag" Lambert dropped in the headline is there to save your life. Those "nags" are actually warnings that your hands have been off the wheel for too long. Those "nags" need to be louder or more frequent, or more inattentive drivers will be killed.
Let's jump to Electrek's Take:
"If the goal is to have the driver keep their hands on the steering wheel, I think this update should do it."
It didn't work every other time Tesla increased the "nag" frequency. Why should this be any different? It won't be, because nothing can guarantee hands-on-wheel except a capacitive sensor, which Tesla lacks and Lambert refuses to acknowledge in this or his article about Comma.ai.
Driver monitoring matters. Not that you do it. How you do it. A torque sensor barely qualifies, because it's not doing any monitoring. In a Tesla, it's a timer based on varying criteria. The "nag" is how you reset it.
It's almost as if Lambert...doesn't want to criticize Tesla. Again. And again. I wonder why. Could it be anything to do with his spat with Automotive News or TTAC, who wrote about his ethical conflicts? Hmmm.
Let's keeping going with Lambert's absurd mental gymnastics:
"The thing is that many owners don’t think it should actually be required to keep your hands on the wheel and I think there’s certainly an argument for it."
Which Tesla owners don't want to keep their hands on the wheel? The ones who don't read the onscreen disclaimers and warnings. The ones who don't understand how Autopilot works. And the dead ones. It's a choice. Is there an argument for keeping your hands on the wheel? Yes, it's called common sense. When Lambert says, "I think there's certainly an argument for it," he's giving the fools who oppose safety a cowardly wink-wink, nudge-nudge. As in, hey guys, I want you to have your fun. Too bad about those warnings.
I mean nags.
"I think paying attention to the road and to what Autopilot is doing is a lot more important for safety than actually having your hands on the wheel as long as you can get them on the wheel fairly quickly if needed, which is generally always the case if you are in the driver’s seat."
What a crock. Crashes happen. You can't make an emergency maneuver if your hand isn't on the wheel. Life comes at you fast. So does death. A half-second delay can be the difference. Since Tesla lacks an awareness DMS but includes serious boilerplate legal verbiage about driver responsibility, 100% of responsibility falls on the the driver using a system with the cheapest, laziest method of warning drivers to pay attention. Legally, functionally, and practically, the driver is responsible.
Has Lambert heard of skill decrement, or safety expert Missy Cummings? She was invited by former Autopilot honcho Sterling Anderson to speak about human factors at Tesla back in the day. Guess what she says? Semi-automated systems like Autopilot can lead to inattention and skill atrophy, which leads to crashes because users aren't trained or ready to take over when necessary.
I've enjoyed Tesla Autopilot, but such systems are only as safe as the user is skilled. Technology is only as good—or safe—as our understanding of it. Lambert isn't helping.
"But this is a case of a few people abusing the system and making it harder for everyone else. A good example is the Tesla owner who got caught on video leaving the driver’s seat while on Autopilot."
What an endorsement for safety, from someone who never saw a Tesla Autopilot video he didn't post. With a disclaimer. Gotta get those clicks.
"Right now, forcing the driver to keep their hands on the wheel is Tesla’s best solution for keeping drivers responsible, which ultimately is a good thing for safety."
It might be Tesla's best solution, but it's not a solution, because it doesn't force your hands on the wheel. Not even close. It just resets the timer. And it isn't "keeping drivers responsible." They're already legally responsible, based on Tesla's disclaimers. It's reducing bad PR from crashes that may be attributed to Autopilot, even if Tesla's not at fault. And it's not even close to the best possible solution, which isn't coming from Tesla unless they introduce DMS hardware in the cabin itself. You can't wireless update something that requires hardware.
Do you smell the rot yet? Lambert's argument stinks.
"GM’s Supercruise uses eye-tracking which works fairly well, but Musk was apparently not impressed with the technology, so he decided not to use it for Autopilot."
GM's Supercruise eye-tracking—courtesy of Seeing Machines—works wonderfully. Here's my deep dive comparing it to Tesla's system. And here's another one. I've seen no evidence Lambert has honestly analyzed GM's system. But he sure had the time to link to his own story about Elon Musk saying eye tracking is ineffective. I admire Musk, but he's wrong, and Lambert is a shill for failing to cite opposing views, which are many, and well documented.
Oh, wait, here's a deep-dive into Musk's decision.
"Yet, the Model 3 is equipped with a driver-facing camera, so you never know."
Lambert has hundreds, if not thousands, of readers with Model 3's. All he has to do is pop off the plastic housing from that driver-facing camera, check the model number, and determine if it's capable of driver monitoring. Also, it appears to be cabin facing, not driver facing. Does it have the resolution to monitor driver behavior off-axis? Maybe. If so, why hasn't it been activated up until now? What hasn't Lambert taken 15 minutes to investigate this?
Maybe because...it would require curiosity, which is the backbone of real journalism.
To be fair, Lambert doesn't claim to be a journalist, which is obvious when you check out the piece-de-resistance of irresponsible, clickbait headlines:
What does that headline mean? Here's the first line of the story:
"Tesla’s next major software update ‘version 9.0’ is now set for a release in August and it will include the first ‘full self-driving features’ for Autopilot 2.0 vehicles, says CEO Elon Musk."
Does that mean the cars will be self-driving? Hard to say. What did Elon Musk actually say? Here's the tweet:
What Musk actually said is "we will begin to enable full self-driving features."
But what does that mean? What is "full self-driving"? Electrek has quoted Musk as saying it's Level 5 autonomy, which means go anywhere, anytime, and that it would arrive by April 2019. If that's true, what does a full self-driving "feature" mean? A car is L5, or it's not. A car is autonomous, or it isn't. Anything short of the fully kitty is semi-automated—which means not "full self-driving"—and a lot less likely to generate tens of thousands of people ready to pay $3000 for it pre-delivery, or $4000 after.
The more people who place deposits for Teslas and pay up for "Full Self-Driving," the more the stock will rise. Who benefits from that?
Here's Electrek's take:
"Again, I think it’s important to note that unless there’s something Musk is not telling us, the fact that he says Tesla will “begin to enable full self-driving features” doesn’t mean that it will actually drive itself."
What does that mean? Nothing. Word soup. So Musk has a secret? Is the secret that I'm right and the cars won't be L5 in August? Of course it is. What semi-automated features could possibly be worth $3000? Should people pay for Full Self-Driving now? Lambert isn't saying.
"If people had issues with Tesla naming its driver assist system “Autopilot,” I can’t wait to see what they are going to say about that."
People, as in safety advocates? I've oscillated on Tesla's use of Autopilot as a brand, and did a semantic deep dive last year. Many safety experts have said that even if Tesla's system is a form of autopilot, the general public is unaware of what an autopilot in a plane actually does, and that confusion is unsafe. Duh. So when Lambert says he "can't wait to see about that" he's really saying that he won't investigate why the Autopilot brand has been problematic. Like a passive-aggressive in-law, he'll happily take your side when it suits him, but not too much. Enjoy your Autopilot. Be safe. It's perfect. Until the next software update. Just be safe. All crashes are your fault.
Strange. He sounds just like Tesla. Except that saying those things is Tesla's job. It's not Lambert's. At least, not if he's supposed to be source of news. News cuts both ways—unless you omit some. Lambert is trying to have it both ways, grabbing the site traffic while setting up his own defense for what will happen in August when the first "full self-driving" features aren't.
But wait. We're not done with Lambert's mastery of misinformation.
"But like Musk said, Tesla had mostly been focused on safety when it comes to Autopilot development. Now it looks like they will put some resources on actual new features."
What is Lambert talking about? Autopilot isn't a safety system. It's a convenience system. The Automatic Emergency Braking (AEB) is present and functional even if Autopilot is disabled. Forward Collision Warning? Same thing. There is no evidence that using Autopilot is safer than not. It might be safer on long trips, if a driver heeds the warnings and pulls over rather than use it a substitute for paying attention. We all know where that leads.
Lambert suggests that Autopilot is both a safety system, and that sufficient work on its safety is complete for work on "actual new features." What does that mean? I consider my life to be an important feature. Several high profile crashes have killed people recently. Is there some other feature that's more important than safety? If so, what is it?
Again, Lambert word soup.
Safety—and especially Tesla safety—dominates headlines almost daily. Anyone who purports to cover Tesla news has an ethical obligation to do so honestly. You don't need to be an accredited journalist or work for a major news organization to raise the flag of transparency, honesty and ethics. If you have an audience, you owe them the respect of telling the truth not as you see it, but as it is.
I don't care how much money is made or lost on $TSLA, but I do care how many people are killed because of misinformation flowing from Lambert's apparent desire to champion a company from whose success he benefits. If he doesn't, then he's a fool. Either way, Lambert is deceiving everyone, including Tesla fans. Lambert would have us believe Tesla can do no wrong, that their technology is flawless until updated, and that there are no alternatives to what they're selling. These are lies of omission. Lambert would have you believe the critics are literally making things up, which is also a lie.
It is perfectly reasonable to love the vision and have issues with execution, to love the cars and kvetch over quality, to love the innovation but doubt the plan.
Electrek is the perfume fools think they want, rather than the soap they need. If you want to invest in Tesla, read the Wall Street Journal, subscribe to Morningstar, and study some economics. You may not like what you find, or maybe you just have faith in the Tony Stark narrative. I don't care, and if you want to drive a piece of the future, neither should you. The future always comes with a price. It's not just money. It's teething problems. For some, that price is too high. For others, part of the game.
You know what price is too high? Your life. And Electrek is guilty of playing word soup with safety, which is disgusting. No company is without rot, but many companies are without external propagandists on the order of Electrek, who serve their own interests at the expense of others'. When Musk suggests we need a site that ranks journalists based on honesty, he should be careful what he wishes for, because Electrek wouldn't pass the smell test.
We, on the other hand, can choose to buy and read whatever we want. There are many great sources of Tesla news that aren't Electrek. I'd love to recommend some, but I don't want to appear biased.
(CORRECTION: Missy Cummings wasn't hired to speak at Tesla, she was invited.)
Alex Roy — Founder of the Human Driving Association, Editor-at-Large at The Drive, Host of The Autonocast, co-host of /DRIVE on NBC Sports and author of The Driver — has set numerous endurance driving records, including the infamous Cannonball Run record. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.