Elon Musk Talks Auto Safety and Regulation of Artificial Intelligence with Joe Rogan

On the Joe Rogan podcast this week, Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s inner Ralph Nader was on full display, with Musk promoting federal regulation of artificial intelligence, criticizing the auto industry’s campaign against seat belts and safety regulation, and praising modern airbags as “crazy good.” 

In the middle of a three and a half hour conversation, Rogan triggered the discussion on regulation when he said he was worried about artificial intelligence.

“We should have oversight of some kind,” Musk said. “A regulatory agency like the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) or the FDA (Food and Drug Administration). We need an acronym to oversee this stuff.”

Rogan expressed doubts about a government agency getting the job done.

“The probability of industry capture is higher if it’s an industry body than if it is the government,” Musk said. “It’s not zero if it is the government. There are plenty of instances of regulatory capture of a government agency. But the probability is lower than if it is an industry group. At the end of the day somebody has to go and tell Facebook, or Google or Tesla, this is okay or it is not okay. Or at least report back to the public — this is what we found. Otherwise the inmates are running the asylum. And these are not necessarily friendly inmates.”

“I’m not a fan of — let’s have the government do lots of things,” Musk said. “You want to have the government do the least amount of stuff. The right role of government is for it to be the referee on the field. When the government starts being a player on the field, that’s problematic. Or when you start having more referees than players, which is the case in California, then that’s not good. You can’t have no referees. Everyone agrees that a referee might be annoying at times, but it is better to have a referee than not.”

Rogan said — “I’m just worried that it’s going to be too late, by the time these things become sentient, by the time they develop the ability to analyze what the threat of human beings are and whether or not human beings are essential –” 

“I’m not saying that having regulatory agencies is some panacea or reduces the risk to zero,” Musk said. “There is still some significant risk even with a regulatory agency. Nonetheless, the good outweighs the bad and we should have one.”

“It took a while before there was an FAA,” Musk said. “There were a lot of plane companies cutting corners. It took a while before there was an FDA. What tends to happen is some company gets desperate, they are on the verge of bankruptcy — and they are like — we will just cut this corner, it will be fine. And then, somebody dies.” 

“Look at seat belts. Now we take seat belts for granted. But the car companies fought seat belts like there was no tomorrow.” 

“Really, they fought them?” Rogan asked.

“For decades,” Musk said. “The data was absolutely clear that you needed seat belts. The difference in fatalities with seat belts versus not seat belts is gigantic and obvious. It’s not subtle. But still, the car companies fought seat belts for ten to twenty years. A lot of people died.” 

“Now, these days with advanced airbags, I think we might have come full circle and no longer need seat belts if you have advanced airbags.” 

“What if the car flips?” Rogan asked.

“You are just covered — it’s airbags everywhere,” Musk said. “Modern airbags are so good it will blow your mind how good they are. At Tesla, we even update the software to improve how the airbags deploy. We will calculate — are you an adult, how much do you weigh, are you sitting in this part of the seat or that part of the seat? You may be a baby. Are you a toddler?” 

“Based on the weight?” Rogan asked.

“Not just the weight, but the pressure distribution on the seat. Are you sitting on the edge of your seat? Are you a fifth percent female or 95 percent male? The airbag firing will be different depending on where you are sitting on the seat, what size you are, and what your orientation is. And we’ll update it over the years. It gets better over time.”

“A child could be sitting in the front seat?” Rogan asked.

“Unbelted child sitting in a bad position – probably still fine,” Musk said. “The seat belt is like — if you wear the seat belt — that’s nice. The airbag is doing the work. Airbag technology is crazy good. You want the airbag to inflate and then deflate, otherwise you are going to be asphyxiated.” 

“We go way beyond the regulatory requirements. We got the lowest probability of injury of any cars they ever tested.” 

“We get five stars in every category and subcategories. And if there was a sixth star, we would get a sixth star.”

But then Musk admitted “the star safety rating is kind of bullshit.” 

“If a smart car hits a freight train, it doesn’t matter how good your safety system is, you are screwed. If you are in a little car and it gets hit by a big car, the big car will win. A low star rating in a big car hitting a high star rating in a small car — the small car is screwed. Small cars are not safe.” 

“What about your small car?” Rogan asked.

“Our Model 3 is not small,” Musk said.

“What about the Roadster?” Rogan asked.

“The Roadster is not super safe,” Musk said. “The original Roadster is not super safe. It’s safe for a car like that, but safety maximization is not the goal in a sports car.”

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