CNN says it has interviewed several Tesla employees who believe the company has pushed too hard and too fast to get its Autopilot suite of semi-autonomous driving software into the hands of customers. They say they felt the company did not pay enough attention to their concerns and brushed aside their objections — especially Elon Musk.
The motto for the Autopilot team then was “not to let the perfect be the enemy of the better.” Personally, Musk told the group “don’t let concerns slow progress.” Musk is a passionate advocate for self-driving systems because he believes they are already safer than human drivers and will only get better. He points to the 32,000 car related deaths on US roads every year and says many of them could be avoided with the use of computer systems like Autopilot. Worldwide, the toll from highway fatalities is staggeringly high.
Eric Meadows, a former autopilot engineer at Tesla, tells CNN he was testing Autopilot on a Los Angeles highway a few months before it was released to customers via an over the air software update in 2015. He says a traffic cop pulled him over because the car was weaving all over the road. The cop suspected he might have been drunk.
Meadows says he knew he was “pushing the limits” of autopilot, but he assumed that’s what real customers would do. That’s why the incident worried him. “I came in with this mentality that Elon had: I want to go from on-ramp to off-ramp and the driver doesn’t have to do anything. The last two months I was scared someone was going to die,” Meadows says. Two months later he was fired.
Other employees say that Musk often dismissed concerns about safety, saying the engineers were “overly cautious.” In one instance, an engineer said the system could not detect a cat in its path. Musk brushed the objection aside, saying he wasn’t concerned about a “comatose cat.” Another pointed out that Autopilot could not detect if the car was parked on the side of a cliff with no guardrail. His concern was also disregarded on the grounds that the odds against such an occurrence happening were so small, the possibility could be safely ignored.
The employees interviewed by CNN said the Autopilot team was made up of younger, data-driven engineers and individuals with more experience in the auto industry. The industry veterans tend to be more sensitive to issues about safety and liability.
Raj Rajkumar, an autonomous car researcher at Carnegie Mellon tells CNN the Tesla employees he meets at conferences and trade shows tell him “it’s an understatement to say [Tesla] is hyper-aggressive.” They report they have to override their concerns because the push to get the software into the hands of the public is so strong. “It’s a business decision,” they say.
It is well known that Elon Musk has a higher tolerance for risk than most. “It’s hard to believe a Toyota or a Mercedes would make that same tradeoff,” says David Keith, an assistant professor of system dynamics at MIT Sloan School of Management who studies new technologies in the automotive industry. “But the whole ethos around Tesla is completely different: they believe in the minimum viable product you get out there that’s safe.”
The Autopilot team did win one argument with Musk. He wanted to allow videos to play on the car’s center console but was talked out of it after receiving strenuous objections from his staff because of liability concerns. That decision was a good one, especially after the death of Joshua Brown in May while driving his Model S on Autopilot.
Police later found a portable DVD player in the car and the truck driver operating the tractor trailer Brown’s car collided with said he heard the soundtrack from a Harry Potter video playing after the accident. The public outcry if that video had been playing on the car’s central touchscreen could have given Musk and Tesla a very big black eye.
Musk’s philosophy seems to be, “To make an omelet, you have to break a few eggs.” He is aware that there will be deaths and injuries while Autopilot is in use and is prepared to accept a few negative events in order to prevent many more. The question now is whether regulators will embrace Musk’s philosophy or adopt a more cautious attitude.
Source: CNN Money