Tesla founder Musk denies technology in company's cars would be used for spying

The electric vehicles have reportedly been banned from Chinese military complexes

Tesla Inc Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk attends via video link a session at the China Development Forum held in Beijing, China March 20, 2021. REUTERS/Roxanne Liu  NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES.
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Tesla chief executive Elon Musk used an opportunity to speak to an audience in China to strenuously deny the electric carmaker would ever use a vehicle’s technology for spying.

Appearing on Saturday at the China Development Forum, a conference organised by a unit of the country’s State Council, Mr Musk said that if Tesla ever used its cars to spy in China, or anywhere, we would get “shut down everywhere”.

“If a commercial company did engage in spying, the negative effects to that company would be extremely bad,” said Mr Musk, who was beamed in remotely from America, where it was late in the evening.

“For example, if Telsa used the cars to spy in China — or anywhere, any country — we will get shut down everywhere. So there’s a very strong incentive for us to be very confidential with any information.”

His comments came less than 24 hours after news broke that Tesla’s cars have been banned from Chinese military complexes and housing compounds because of concerns about sensitive data being collected by cameras built into the vehicles. China, the world’s biggest market for EVs, is key to Mr Musk’s global growth ambitions. The company sold more than 130,000 locally-built Model 3 cars last year in the nation, now its second-largest market after the US.

The ban, relayed to residents of military housing and others this week, was triggered by concerns that Tesla is collecting sensitive data via cars’ in-built cameras in a way the Chinese government can’t see or control, a person familiar with the matter said.

Mr Musk, wearing a smart black suit with white shirt and black tie and seated in front of shelves displaying plaques and trophies, also said it was fortunate that ByteDance’s TikTok wasn’t shut down in the US, even though there were a lot of people concerned that China was spying via the popular app.

“Of course, on TikTok, people are mostly just doing silly dances,” he said. “So I’m not sure if there’s anything to learn from that. Just in general, I think it’s worth thinking through, even if there was spying, what would the other country learn and would it actually matter? In the vast majority of cases, it doesn’t even matter.”


Tesla Model S


The mega-billionaire, who is also the chief executive of SpaceX and The Boring Company, which specialises in tunnel construction projects, also spoke about how he thinks physics should be taught, the need for cities to become “3D” using underground passageways to ease traffic congestion, and the importance of having regulatory oversight with regard to artificial intelligence.

“I think dealing with AI is one of the most important challenges that humanity faces, it could potentially be the most” important, he said. “We have never faced a situation where something could be more intelligent than us.”

Mr Musk said that considering there are regulatory agencies governing things like food, drugs, automobiles and aircraft, there should also be an agency that oversees AI safety.

And he agreed with Xue Qikun, president of Southern University of Science & Technology and member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, that physics should be taught with emotion to make the subject more compelling. Mr Xue was participating in the dialogue with Mr Musk from Beijing.

“I think physics could be taught in a much more engaging manner,” Musk said. “I personally do not regard physics as boring, although I think the way physics is taught can often be in a way that is very dry and uninteresting.” Teaching students about the “why” of a thing’s importance and establishing relevance is key, he said.

"We have never faced a situation where something could be more intelligent than us"

He added that studying economics is also paramount to deduce whether a technology can be practical from a cost standpoint. To that end, he pushed back on Mr Xue’s views that hydrogen is the future, saying that he instead was a big believer in solar and wind pared with stationary battery storage, and all transport being electric, with the exception of rockets.

The discussion ended with an audience member asking another question about how to get younger people more interested in physics. Zoom call over, Musk was back on his preferred social media platform within minutes, tweeting about orbital propellant depots and cryogenic storage.