Musk lets one rip in Tesla software update

Michael Hiltzik
Los Angeles Times

For those of you consumed with curiosity about how Elon Musk spends his spare time — and isn’t that everybody? — here’s a clue. He just rolled out an update to the software in Tesla cars allowing them to make farting noises on demand.

Yes, you read that, or heard that, right.

Elon Musk, co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of Tesla Inc., speaks at an unveiling event for The Boring Company Hawthorne test tunnel Dec. 18, 2018 in Hawthorne, Ca. On Tuesday night, The Boring Company will officially open the Hawthorne tunnel, a preview of Musk's larger vision to ease traffic in Los Angeles. (Robyn Beck-Pool/Getty Images/TNS)

Tesla, the company, didn’t issue an announcement of the technological improvement, but Musk himself did, via his preferred medium for making important corporate announcements, Twitter.

Underscoring his stature as CEO who enjoys a rude joke as much as the 8-year-old sitting a couple of desks over, Musk pointed out that one of the six noises from which drivers can choose is labeled “short shorts ripper,” which he called “a thank you to Tesla short sellers … haha.”

The new rollout fits nicely within Musk’s apparent attention deficit disorder. Tesla still faces multiple questions about its ability to sustain profitability, especially by selling cars (the profit it declared in its latest quarterly report was heavily dependent on the trading of government air pollution credits and other maneuvers not directly related to sales of vehicles); about the level of demand for its cars; and about its ability to meet demand on the production line.

There are also questions about Musk’s devotion to Job One at Tesla, which is rolling out a mass-market version of its Model 3 sedan. Keeping Musk focused plainly is a chore that the Tesla board has failed to master. Just Tuesday, Musk took time out for a press event focused on a 1.14-mile underground tunnel designed as a prototype of a subway-like system to beat surface traffic in Los Angeles.

The tunnel was widely panned, including by my colleague Laura Nelson, who wrote that the tunnel surface was so uneven that a ride in a specially outfitted Tesla inside the tunnel “felt like riding on a dirt road.” And hers was one of the kinder judgments. (An amusing take by Albert Burneko of Deadspin is here, but be warned: profanity.

More to the point, the tunnel was not even a Tesla project, but the product of the Boring Co., a privately owned enterprise backed by Musk.

Also an open question is how Musk is complying with a settlement he reached with the Securities and Exchange Commission in September, after the agency sued him for a misleading, if not flagrantly inaccurate, tweet in August stating that he had “secured funding” to take Tesla private at $420 per share, a huge premium to its price at the time. (And still — the stock closed at $315.38 Thursday.)

Among other things, the settlement requires Tesla to oversee Musk’s tweeting, er, “put in place additional controls and procedures to oversee Musk’s communications.” There’s no evidence as yet that any such arrangement has been made, and Musk hinted in a recent interview with “60 Minutes” that he considered control over his tweets to be an infringement of his 1st Amendment rights.

One of Tesla’s technological selling points is the company’s ability to upgrade the cars’ functionality via over-the-air software revisions. In the past, these have been used to refine their self-driving capabilities and to improve their braking functionality (after Consumer Reports found that the Model 3’s braking distances were much worse than “any other contemporary car”).

The latest update is nothing like that. As TechCrunch reported this week, the so-called Emissions Testing Mode (get it?) allows the driver to opt for any of five different fart noises in addition to the “short shorts ripper.” The sounds are activated by the turn signal, or by pressing a scroll wheel on the steering column.

The latter is another dig at Tesla short sellers, whom Musk often blames for downdrafts in Tesla’s share price, despite the counsel of experienced market experts that movements in the stock, especially movements down, reflect legitimate skepticism about the company’s performance or prospects.

In any event, as a colleague observes, it should go without saying that “the best way to blow off short sellers is to build a strong business. And hold your farts until you do.”