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The car company Tesla is thinking small these days. It started out producing luxury electric cars, introducing self-driving technology, and now aims to deliver a mass-market affordable sedan. The auto industry is watching to see if Tesla, which has its roots in the tech world of Silicon Valley, can pull it off. Here's NPR's Sonari Glinton.
SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: Earlier this year, in May, Tesla had its first fatality in a vehicle using Autopilot. It's a feature that Tesla offers that allows the car to do a lot of the driving. It's supposed to be an assist. Before you engage it, it warns you not to take your hands off the wheel. But grown-ups will sometimes act like children, and there is a whole section on YouTube devoted to people doing foolish things while using Autopilot or just freaking out when they take their hands off the wheel.
(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "GRANNY ON TESLA'S AUTOPILOT MODE")
BILL: Oh, come on, relax.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Oh, my God, Bill (ph). I couldn't do. (Screaming) Oh - oh, it's a car coming. Just - oh, my God, it would've hit us.
JOHN DOLAN: Well, I think it is to be expected that people are going to do things that they've been told not to do with new technology.
DOLAN: John Dolan is with the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon.
DOLAN: There were stories years ago about people using lawn mowers to clip their hedges and cutting their fingers off, things like that. There's a legitimate question as to whether or not Tesla did it too early. It's also possible that the traditional automakers would wait until too late to bring the technology out.
GLINTON: But people get killed every day in regular cars, so why all the attention over this one fatality? Well, because it involves a technology that's expected to revolutionize the industry and Tesla has been way out front. Michelle Krebs is a senior analyst with AutoTrader.com
MICHELLE KREBS: The way Tesla has handled Autopilot, which is sort of in beta testing out in the real world, is not something that a traditional automaker would do.
GLINTON: Krebs says the stakes for Tesla are different. For example, Tesla CEO Elon Musk recently came out with the second part of his master plan for the company. He wrote on the company's blog about getting into trucking and ride-sharing at some point in the future. In the day leading up to the plan's release, much of the car world waited with breathless anticipation.
KREBS: First, I can't imagine us doing that with one of the traditional automakers. And then, I can't imagine the traditional automakers announcing something that was almost dreamy.
GLINTON: The new plan, short on details, involves building batteries, installing them, moving beyond passenger vehicles. Krebs says Tesla hasn't yet proven it can execute on its old plan to build an affordable electric car for the masses.
KREBS: It's very hard to build a car at all, and they have been doing largely hand-building of cars. They - Tesla has not yet done mass production, and mass production is very challenging.
RYAN POPPLE: If anybody can run a rocket company and a car company, maybe a solar company as well, it's Elon.
GLINTON: Ryan Popple is a former Tesla executive. He now runs an electric bus company called Proterra.
POPPLE: You have a limited amount of resources every 24 hours that you can put into projects. What's going to be really important is for Tesla to pick what's most important to advancing their clean vehicle revolution, or their clean energy revolution, and then doing nothing else.
GLINTON: Advocates in the electric car world say they almost need Tesla to succeed, the same for self-driving cars. And right now, a setback for Tesla could mean a setback for both technologies. Sonari Glinton, NPR News.
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