More Than Meets the Eye

A Tesla struck and “killed” a robot at CES—or did it?

International News Technology Transportation
Promobot is a
Promobot is a "robot concierge" and "business robot" that has been used to artificially drum up publicity before. Pictured here: Promobot V.4. (Courtesy Promobot)

It’s either a documented case of robot-on-robot violence or an elaborate self-perpetuating hoax. At the January 7 opening of the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, a Tesla in “self-driving mode” struck a Russian Promobot, and the event was captured on video.

Or did it? The story seemed too good to be true, and touched a nerve over fears that autonomous vehicles could be dangerous (see the case of Uber’s Arizonan test car that got into a fatal crash last March). In the video, a Tesla Model S can be seen cruising by a robot standing curbside, at which point the Promobot falls over and its arm falls off. Promobot’s manufacturer, also called Promobot, posted footage of the incident to Twitter, tagged Elon Musk, and “Promobot was killed by a self-driving Tesla car” racked up over a million views.

Promobot claims that its robot was damaged beyond repair and that they would be filing a police report. How did the robot manage to “run off” to the far side of the road without anyone noticing? How did Promobot seem to know that the Tesla was in self-driving mode? Why was the scene being filmed in the first place? The company has thus far been unable to provide answers, but tech writers and Twitter users were quick to point out the inconsistencies in Promobot’s story.

Tesla’s cars, while equipped with an “Autopilot” mode that assists drivers on highways, lacks a fully-autonomous self-driving mode. When the driver, George Caldera, was asked for a comment by the Daily Mail, he allegedly told the British tabloid that he had shifted to the passenger seat and handed over control to the vehicle.

“I switched this Tesla into a self-driving mode and it started to move. And wow! A robot on the track! I thought the flivver would come round, but it bumped straightly into it! I am so sorry, the robot looks cute. And my sincere apologies to the engineers.”

Other than the strange quote, a rope can be seen on the far side of the road near the robot, and Promobot appears to fall over slightly before being passed by the car.

Robots and self-driving cars have captured the public’s imagination, but confusion over the capabilities of each have at times also served to confuse. For instance, the robots deployed to ward off homeless people in San Francisco and Waymo’s self-driving cars in Arizona, have both elicited visceral responses from the public. The integration of artificial intelligence into the urban fabric has a long and bumpy road ahead.

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