From the article "Elon Musk's Appetite for Destruction" (archived version for posterity), published January 17, 2023 on the web and slated for publication in the January 22 issue of the New York Times Magazine:

Slavik sent me one of the complaints he filed against Tesla, which lists prominent Autopilot crashes from A to Z — in fact, from A to WW. In China, a Tesla slammed into the back of a street sweeper. In Florida, a Tesla hit a tractor-trailer that was stretched across two lanes of a highway. During a downpour in Indiana, a Tesla Model 3 hydroplaned off the road and burst into flames. In the Florida Keys, a Model S drove through an intersection and killed a pedestrian. In New York, a Model Y struck a man who was changing his tire on the shoulder of the Long Island Expressway. In Montana, a Tesla steered unexpectedly into a highway barrier. Then the same thing happened in Dallas and in Mountain View and in San Jose.

Later in the article:

That is the argument that Tesla has to make to the public and to juries this spring. In the words of the company’s safety report: “While no car can prevent all accidents, we work every day to try to make them much less likely to occur.” Autopilot may cause a crash WW times, but without that technology, we’d be at OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO.

(emphasis added in both excerpts). What in the world do "WW" and "OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO" mean in this context? In the first excerpt, "WW" seems to be a play on "A to Z," but in the second, it appears to represent a number--and God only knows how "OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO" figures in. My working hypothesis is that these were intended to be placeholders for other values, but it's hard to understand how they survived the editing process, to say nothing of the fact that the article has been online for three days now without changes. Any insights?

  • 5
    My guess is that this is a kind of alphabetic counting, where Z would be 26, AA would be 27, and WW would be 26*23+23. (See the columns in an Excel spreadsheet.) In other words, it uses the alphabet (without numbers) in base 26. But that's so unusual to do (especially unexplained) that I don't want to venture that as an answer without further support. Jan 20 at 19:08
  • 2
    Is it possible the alphabetically highest location where a Tesla Autopilot failure has been recorded abbreviates as WW? The OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO stuff doesn't seem meaningful to me (except maybe as a really dumb attempt to emphatically convey ZERO). Jan 20 at 19:11
  • 1
    In the second usage, WW seems to be referring to a relatively small number, with OOOOOOOOOOOO referring to a much larger number (i.e., "with autopilot, we have 10 crashes, but without it we'd have 1000"), which lends credence to the spreadsheet column numbering system explanation. However, even that is so obscure and unusual that I would chalk this up to a forgotten placeholder resulting from careless editing.
    – user770884
    Jan 20 at 19:23
  • 2
    Is this question about the English language?
    – Gio
    Jan 20 at 19:43
  • 1
    As @TaliesinMerlin noted, this is spreadsheet [ac]counting: professor-excel.com/… Jan 21 at 3:43

3 Answers 3


Donald Slavik is a lawyer. He has exhibits A-Z, and even more exhibits after that: AA, AB, and so on, ending at WW (621). As you would expect, "OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO" is an obscenely large number (about 4.6 times 10^26 or 459_880_359_120_217_134_284_773_785 — see this code for conversion).

Many paralegals know the correct way to assign letters for exhibits. The first 26 exhibits are easy, EX-A through EX-Z, and the next exhibit is also usually correct, EX-AA, but it’s after that where things can go awry. The 28th exhibit should be EX-AB (not EX-BB) followed by EX-AC, EX-AD, EX-AE, EX-AF and so on. — Lit Software

Spreadsheet software like Excel also uses letters like this for column names, known as A1 reference style. However, I ruled this out because it would be very unusual to store records "vertically" instead of in rows (and in fact would be impossible in older versions of Excel due to having a limited number of columns).

  • Assuming we use exhibit or "spreadsheet" notation with the Greek alphabet (O as in "alpha and omega"), and my calculations are correct, this would be 24^19 or roughly 1.67e26 accidents, 167 septillion.
    – pipe
    Jan 21 at 9:19
  • @pipe That seems unlikely, since the Greek letter with this form is omicron Ο ο, not omega Ω ω. And just like O in the English alphabet, omicron is the 15th letter, so nothing remarkable like being the last letter. I don’t think anyone but the author can tell us for certain why they went with “OOO…” rather than “ZZZ…”. (Maybe that looks too much like falling asleep from boredom?) Jan 21 at 16:30
  • 5
    I don't see the word "hyperbole" anywhere in your answer, although this is clearly the case with OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO.
    – Spencer
    Jan 21 at 17:29
  • 7
    I'd wager a candy bar that the system that the author had in mind was the AA, BB, ..., YY, ZZ system, not the AA, AB, ..., ZY, ZZ system. With the AA, BB system, the notation OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO would represent 483, which seems like an actually plausible number. Jan 21 at 18:15
  • 1
    It's worth noting that the UK Gov did, in-fact, store COVID records vertically in a spreadsheet and lost tens of thousands of records as a result... Jan 22 at 12:21

Slavik is saying that someone sent him a list of 26 crashes, labeled A to Z. He then corrects himself and says A - WW, meaning there were 26 + 23 = 49 reports: A, B, C, ..., Z, AA, BB, CC, ..., WW. This is apparently blamed on autopilot.

He then makes the argument that there would be some extraordinarily long list up to OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO, which is hundreds of crashes, if cars did not have autopilot. Presumably he is referring to the fact that car crashes are not new, and that humans driving without autopilot would have been in hundreds of crashes. This argues that autopilot has prevented far more crashes than it has caused.


To clear up an error in the comments: The lettering of exhibits is NOT required to be A, B, ..., Z, AA, AB, ..., AZ, BA, etc. There is legal software that extols that system as a feature. However, certain courts mandate AA, BB, CC, ..., ZZ, AAA, BBB, etc., as described in the answer. For instance, New Hampshire court "Procedure for Marking Exhibits" states:

If total number of exhibits does not exceed 78 (three times through the alphabet): Defendant's exhibits shall be marked alphabetically in sequence and commencing with the letter A. After the alphabet has been used, begin with AA, BB, etc., followed by AAA, BBB, etc., for the third time through. If total number exceeds 78: Defendant's exhibits shall be marked numerically.



This is a reference to column name patterns in MS Excel. (edit: I now understand there is an alternative, more contextually-appropriate use for the same system—see below) In Excel, new columns are named by letters by default, and there are only 26 letters in the Roman alphabet, so after column “Z” comes “AA”, then “AB”, etc. It’s a kind of pseudo-base-26 number system. The author earlier stated that they were shown a list of incidents “from A to Z, or rather, A to WW”, meaning that the list went through A-Z, then through AA-AZ, then BA-BZ, etc, until column WW.

Why someone would use columns for repetitive data of this quantity is an utter mystery—that’s what rows are for.

It’s somewhat easy to calculate these numbers. Like regular numbers, you start from the rightmost letter digit and multiply its position in the alphabet (1-indexed) by 26 to the power of its digit position in the number (0-indexed), and then add every digit result together. So for example, with WW, W is the 23rd letter, so WW = (23 * 26^0) + (23 * 26^1) = 621, the 621st column from the left in Excel. That means the author of the article was shown a document with 621 columns of different data, which is incredibly silly, IMO. Again, this should be 621 rows of data!

Now, let’s examine “OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO”. If the author understood the math here, they would have realized that this is an incredibly large number in Excel’s pseudo-base-26 number system. It comes out to column number 459880359120217134284773785. Since it’s all the same digit (O is the 15th letter), you can calculate it as SUM(15 * 26^n, 0, 18), in other words add up 15 * 26^n for all values of n from 0 to 18 (because “OOO…” has 19 digits).

It seems clear to me the author wrote that absurd number because it had a visual effect on the reader of suggesting “many more” and followed the repetitive pattern of “WW”. I don’t think they understood the math quite well. The article discusses the 10 times “order of magnitude” more safe statistics of Tesla cars, so if there were 10x more incident reports than WW (621), that would be 6,210, which is column IDV in Excel pseudo-base-26. (22 * 26^0) + (4 * 26^1) + (9 * 26^2) = 6,210.

But “IDV” doesn’t look as impressive as “OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO”, and it probably would have confused even more readers!

Edit: I see now that this could perhaps be a list of legal exhibits which use the same numbering/labeling system. So that would make more sense than egregious abuse of columns in Excel.

  • For the reason given in your second paragraph, Excel column numbering seems unlikely (and this is mentioned in the accepted answer). Mar 16 at 11:52
  • Yes, I just learned that legal exhibits use the same numbering system. This makes much more sense. I’ve edited my answer to mention that.
    – Avana Vana
    Mar 16 at 13:26
  • I fail to see what this adds to the existing answers as far as the question is concerned.
    – Joachim
    Mar 16 at 13:32
  • It provides the mathematical formula to manually convert the system (bijective base-26) to decimal, what the author should have written (IDV) if they wanted to express the 10x more incidents in which Teslas would have been involved had they lacked autopilot (10x is the additional factor due to autopilot cited repeatedly in the text), and it demonstrates the necessity of the absurd number the author actually wrote (OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO) by comparison, as easier to grok and visually hyperbolic.
    – Avana Vana
    Mar 16 at 18:06

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge that you have read and understand our privacy policy and code of conduct.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.