Tesla's Elon Musk claps back at Jim Farley, Ford with 'Tommy Boy' clip on Twitter

Phoebe Wall Howard
Detroit Free Press
Hands-free driving in a 2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk and Ford CEO Jim Farley have just exchanged smackdown tweets over the past 24 hours that thousands of people have characterized as Twitter gold.

At issue: Hands-free driving.

The competition for dominance is under scrutiny by consumers, industry analysts and shareholders. Billions of dollars are at stake.

Tesla has been a technology leader and other companies are rushing to catch up, including Ford. Yet Tesla has also been in the news lately for federal crash investigations in Michigan and Florida to determine the role of driver-assist technology.

On Wednesday, Ford unveiled video showing highway testing of its Blue Cruise technology soon to be featured in already-sold Mustang Mach-E and Ford F-150s.

Farley tweeted at 9:22 a.m. to his 32,000 followers, "BlueCruise! We tested it in the real world, so our customers don’t have to."

While some read the tweet as a straight-forward alert that Ford testing is happening and the technology is coming soon, Tesla fans saw Farley throwing shade at Tesla.

"Ford CEO Jim Farley took a jab at Tesla's use of real-world owners to test its Full Self-Driving suite, while revealing its own BlueCruise," tweeted @Teslarati to its 422,700 followers at 6:30 p.m.

Teslarati describes itself online as a "California-based multi-platform media company and leading lifestyle brand with a focus on Tesla, SpaceX, and ventures affiliated with Elon Musk."

More than 10,000 Twitter users fueled debate into Thursday, including Musk.

What's the controversy? 

Ford’s Blue Cruise hands-free highway driving system is expected to be installed with over-the-air downloads in more than 100,000 vehicles by the end of the year. A  $600 subscription fee will allow hands-free driving on 100,000 miles of highway in the U.S. and Canada.

Hands-free driving has, so far, been available only in Cadillac’s Super Cruise system, which debuted in 2017 but has been limited to a handful of CT6 sedans and Escalade. GM will add the feature to four more vehicles this year and plans to offer Super Cruise on 22 models by the end of 2023.

Like Super Cruise, Ford’s Blue Cruise promises to outperform Tesla’s Autopilot, which does not offer hands-free driving — despite some Tesla drivers’ behavior to the contrary.

Elon Musk.

The Tesla website is clear:

  • Autopilot and Full Self-Driving Capability are intended for use with a fully attentive driver, who has their hands on the wheel ... 
  • While using Autopilot, it is your responsibility to stay alert, keep your hands on the steering wheel at all times and maintain control of your car. 
  • Before enabling Autopilot, the driver first needs to agree to “keep your hands on the steering wheel at all times” ... Every time the driver engages Autopilot, they are shown a visual reminder to “keep your hands on the wheel."

Elon strikes back

Responding to what was perceived as bait from Farley, Musk responded at 6:35 p.m. to Teslarati, "I found some footage of the drive."

Musk posted a 2:39 video clip of the 1995 cult comedy movie "Tommy Boy," featuring actors Chris Farley and David Spade behind the wheel of a vehicle completely out of control on the highway. 

Twitter went wild.

Musk, a billionaire with 50.8 million Twitter followers, won raves.

"Using Farley to troll Farley is ... pretty hilarious. Even Mr. Ford Man has gotta crack a smile at this," tweeted Ryan McCaffrey at @DMC_Ryan to his 137,400 followers.

McCaffrey is host of Ride the Lightning, an unofficial Tesla podcast, and executive editor of previews at the IGN video game and entertainment website.

The real 'Tommy Boy'

Chris Farley is Jim Farley's cousin. He died just before Christmas 1997.

When Jim Farley took his job with Toyota, he moved to Torrance, California, and left his cousin behind in Los Angeles. That same year, Chris Farley joined the cast of "Saturday Night Live." on NBC. He had sought treatment for drug and alcohol addiction throughout his adult life, and Jim Farley tried to protect the family member who made everyone laugh. Between 1990 and 1997, the comedian surged to stardom with TV and film roles. He died at 33.

The drug overdose of Chris Farley crushed the tight-knit Irish Catholic family.

"He was going through fame, dealing with being a Wisconsin boy exposed to so much," Jim Farley told the Free Press in 2019. “Chris’ humor, in many ways, came from his dad, my father’s brother. ... I remember hearing so many times Chris talk to his dad about a character he was thinking about."

Tommy Callahan (Chris Farley, left) sets out to hit the road with his late father's assistant (David Spade) to save the family business in the 1995 comedy "Tommy Boy."

"Tommy Boy" was actually inspired by real-life characters. It is about a father-son relationship and what happens when a son inherits an auto parts plant and must make the business work. He sets out on a cross-country sales trip with his assistant.

In real life, Chris' father, Tommy Farley, graduated from Georgetown University and returned home to Wisconsin to sell asphalt. The father often inspired characters for his comedian son.

Jim Farley has said talking about his cousin is painful, mixed with guilt and sadness and wondering years later what he could have done to save his cousin's life.

Intense pressure

The Twitter sparring between CEOs is not trivial; it's revealing, Karl Brauer, executive analyst at, a car listing and data site, told the Free Press late Wednesday. 

He downplayed the conflict and noted that Musk recently tweeted praise about Ford not needing a government bailout during the Great Recession. 

In July 2018, Jim Farley was selected to enter his 1965 Ford GT40 in the biennial Le Mans Classic in France. The vintage racing event replicates the 24 Hours of Le Mans in three 45-minute heats over a 24-hour period that includes night racing.

"If you look at the totality of the situation, I do think there's kind of a mutual respect to the point where these two can jab at each other," Brauer said.

"There is a highly competitive race to see who gets full self-driving mastered first. There are a lot of players and a pretty big payoff at the end," Brauer said. "So this is kind of a public sniping of two of the big players that have pressure on them to perform. They're all anxious about who's going to win." 

Crossing the line

Yet not everyone applauded Musk's tweet.

Some responses were scathing, saying that using a clip featuring a Farley family member who died young to troll the Ford CEO was unfunny and lacked class. Other Twitter responses challenged Musk for making fun of reckless driving when Tesla was cited for "lax safety practices" last month by the National Transportation Safety Board.

E.W. Niedermeyer tweeted to his 13,100 followers from @Tweetermeyer, "Bold take from a guy whose 'Autopilot' has been identified by the @NTSB  as a contributing factor in multiple fatal crashes!"

Niedermeyer, author of  "Ludicrous: The Unvarnished Story of Tesla Motors", told the Free Press, "Farley's jab was playful, but Elon took it to a decidedly less-playful place."

The issue of hands-free driving isn't a joke, he said.

"The important part of this is not the dynamic between two CEOs though, it's aspects of Autopilot's design that have contributed to at least three thoroughly investigated deaths. ... That's the real issue here. The fact that Musk continues to get away with selling a system that was designed to seem 'autonomous' rather than be safe ... as a society we are failing to live up to the responsibilities that come with new technologies."

'Down by the river'

Jim Farley hadn't replied to the "Tommy Boy" tweet by Thursday morning. 

He did reply to a @marc_benton tweet that asked, "Why does the CEO of @ford make social media posts like this? An obvious dig at Tesla. And they wonder why Tesla 'super fans' trash them on social media." 

Farley: "It's an excellent system for customers."

Meanwhile, his Twitter profile @jimfarley98 makes reference to his cousin, and has for some time. It says, "Mustang and racing fan. CEO @Ford. Happen to love white vans ...  preferably down by the river."

That phrase "down by the river" was made famous by Chris Farley.

He premiered the character of Matt Foley, a divorced motivational speaker who lives in a van down by the river on "SNL" in 1993. He tells his young audience, "You're not going to amount to jack squat. You're going to end up eating a steady diet of government cheese and living in a van down by the river."

More:Ford CEO Jim Farley is doing important work at TCF Center — and few know it

More:Jim Farley retweets Chrissy Teigen for 'those of us who have lost children' defines "van down by the river" as "where a person in bad circumstances lives. From a Saturday Night Live sketch featuring Chris Farley." And lists as style of use, "If you don't study hard in school, you'll be living in a van down by the river."

Actor Chris Farley, who spent four seasons on TV's "Saturday Night Live'' in the 1990s and starred in several movies, is shown in this undated photo.

Fans used the latest Twitter thread to acknowledge Chris Farley. 

Investment manager @EmmetPeppers tweeted to his 15,300 followers, "I miss that guy."

Software developer @KennyBastani tweeted to his 7,296 followers, "When I was ten, Chris Farley showed up at my soccer team's practice because he was doing rehab nearby. He did it just to be with people and to find joy."

Staff writer Mark Phelan contributed to this report. 

Contact Phoebe Wall Howard: 313-222-6512 her on Twitter@phoebesaid. Read more on Ford and sign up for our autos newsletter.