Tesla & SpaceX Crash Into Our Expectations For Innovation

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There are two powerful myths doing battle on the roads and in the skies: One celebrates stoic individuals who dare to innovate, and the other promises huge rewards to those who are first to a market.

I wonder if they’re mutually exclusive, or at least contradictory.

News of a deadly crash attributed to Tesla’s Autopilot last week followed three incidents this summer. The company blamed two of those earlier crashes on driver error — it seems its Autopilot isn’t so automatic after all — but what’s incontrovertible is that the company is pioneering an experimental technology, and its customers are its beta testers.

It’s how we’ve been taught to think about innovation generally these days. Individuals, or small companies, are supposed to forge ahead with their ideas, damning bureaucracies that make change slower and incremental, and ignoring accounting rules that make it less likely and more expensive.

We talk about collaboration, but innovation is really about competition to get to a new product or service first. Disruption is a buzzworthy word for the monopoly-like pot of gold at the end of Tesla’s highway (or Uber’s, for that matter).

This innovation myth works fine when the “crashes” are smartphone apps that fail to fulfill orders for cupcake delivery, but not so much when people die.

Imagine if someone invented a toaster that did something really cool, but your kitchen could explode if you didn’t push a button when a warning light went on. You’d probably assume that rigorous testing had determined such an event was extremely rare, like those mouseprint warnings at the end of every prescription drug ad.

But what if the only thing you knew was that you’d opted-in to taking a risk that nobody had independently noted, let alone measured?

No “big” company has the freedom (or is it audacity?) to outsource such risk. Drugs, jet engines, and a zillion other technologies are tested, regulated, and otherwise impaired by those bureaucracies that we’re been told are inefficient and outdated.

Not only do those large businesses fail to get credit for the innovation they deliver, but they’re held to a higher standard for doing it. There are really interesting regulatory and psychological aspects to this dichotomy, but I’m interested in the communications implications:

Is there really a benefit to Tesla for being known as a first-mover on autonomous driving technology, despite the setbacks?

After all, it can’t own it. Every carmaker and supplier is developing similar technology. Many are already testing it (like Volvo), though in far more controlled circumstances. Insurers are working on novel coverage to accommodate it.

At some point, GM or Toyota will reveal an autopilot that conforms to our expectations for car safety and reliability, and not to our habits opting-in to downloadable apps.

So what does Tesla get for its stoic innovation?

It makes me think of SpaceX’s recurring launch and landing mishaps (the latest was earlier this month).

Fans of the company cite the risks involved in rocket science generally, which are absolutely true, and they laud Elon Musk for doggedly pursuing his vision. Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin rocket company gets similar cred, though less vocally.

Yet the myth underlying both narratives is that rockets, which were once built by huge, complex networks of experts and suppliers working under the aegis of, gasp, a government agency, can instead get built by scrappy startups and bought like products in much the same way as, well, that cupcake app.

Really?

NASA was busy collaborating and outsourcing back in the 1960’s, before either term became popular. It’s how most big companies function today, too. So it’s no coincidence that both are considered “dinosaurs” in our new lexicon of innovation.

But history tells us otherwise. Decades, if not centuries of experience affirm that innovation is best delivered when individuals and groups come together to solve its challenges, and share its risks. Often, the processes can be maddeningly difficult, and not just occasionally imperfect, but the cliche “success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan” is rooted in process, not just perception.

There is so much innovation going on in businesses and public institutions around the world, but because it doesn’t fit into our popular myths, we don’t value it. News about crashes and deaths affirms our expectations. And we’ve been taught to celebrate those first-movers behind that news, who dare to defy history and the odds.

I’m just not sure either myth has anything to do with innovation.