CNN Interviews Current & Former Tesla Autopilot Engineers

AUG 6 2016 BY ERIC LOVEDAY 36

Tesla Autopilot

Tesla Autopilot

Recently, CNN Money got in touch with a couple of current and former Tesla employees who had/have a connection to the automaker’s Autopilot program. More specifically, CNN Money conducted interviews with five current and former Tesla employees. Most spoke only on the condition of anonymity.

Before we dive into it, let us first state that, for obvious reasons, the words of former employees aren’t always true.

As CNN Money explains:

“Even before Tesla reported the first known death of a driver using its autopilot feature, some employees worried the car company wasn’t taking every possible precaution.”

“But Tesla founder and CEO Elon Musk believes that autopilot has the potential to save lives by reducing human error — and has pushed hard to get the feature to market.”

“The team’s motto is “not to let the perfect be the enemy of the better,” according to a source close to Tesla. For Musk specifically, the source says his driving force is “don’t let concerns slow progress.”

So, there was some concerns over Autopilot. That’s normal when any company ventures into new, uncharted territories. And progress doesn’t come without risk.

CNN Money got in touch with Eric Meadows, a former autopilot engineer at Tesla. He went on record, stating

“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.”

In hindsight it’s easy to make a comment such as the one above. Meadows was fired from Tesla due to performance reasons.

According to sources, Musk was constantly battling with employees who were being “overly cautious” in regards to Autopilot development, despite Tesla’s official stance that “safety is a top priority.”

CNN Money posted this as an example:

“…one source close to Tesla pointed to the development of the self-parking feature. The sensors might not work as intended when the car is parked on the edge of a precipice, but that uncommon risk was weighed internally against the benefit of preventing “thousands of deaths” from drivers backing out of their garages.”

Without risk, there are no rewards, right?

It seems obvious from CNN Money’ article that Musk was/is always the one pushing the boundaries, whereas Tesla and some employees feel a lower risk approach might prove more beneficial in the long run. We know Musk is a risk taker who’s more often than not been right, so we suppose his track record speaks for itself and perhaps it would be in the best interest if Tesla and its employees put their trust in Musk.

Source: CNN Money

Categories: Tesla

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36 Comments on "CNN Interviews Current & Former Tesla Autopilot Engineers"

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If you engineer every possible precaution you will never release an autonomous drive system.

The people driving these cars are justly warned in regards to the caution they must exercise ., and that They will always be held responsible for any driving related outcomes..The problem is that they get TOO complacent & Too over confident & ignore all the dangers that could present themselves in situations, even though they get timely advanced and fair warning. Some still fail to heed these warnings..”WE ARE OUR OWN WORST ENEMIES” …

your statement isn’t necessarily true. caution would say that you don’t “beta test” the feature with no screening of those who would be the testers. caution would say that you deploy the feature to a limited set of test professionals.

That’s just what Google is doing; limiting their self-driving cars to only drivers (or observers) with special training.

Just what impact have the Google self-driving cars had on advancing autonomy in cars sold to the public? So far, zero. Clearly Tesla has taken the lead on this.

Go Tesla!

So far Tesla is on a good track to provide numbers to statistically prove that autonomous driving is as dangerous as drunk driving. If CNN findings are confirmed and accidents keep happening at the current rate this will be a great excuse to outright ban AD or at least force Tesla to pay hefty fines.

IMHO Tesla should stay under the radar and focus on making electric cars and gaining some weight. It is not like we are going to have true self-driving cars any time soon so Autopilot doesn’t really bring anything to their business other than legal risk. There are many regulators outside (possibly even inside) USA that aren’t very happy with them. They are obviously out of reach on emissions, but safety is a good excuse too.

You’ve made a number of assertions there. I’d like to see citations to back up your claims that:

1. CNN has reported multiple accidents by cars using Tesla Autopilot. So far as I know, there’s only the one that actually occurred while the car was being controlled by Autopilot, and that clearly was the fault of the drivers not driving responsibly or even legally; not the fault of Tesla Autopilot.

2. Regulators aren’t happy with Tesla. In fact, the NHTSA has been quoted as saying they hope to see autonomous driving advance quickly, and they very specifically declined to tell Tesla to slow or halt the deployment.

I don’t know that your intent here is just to bash Tesla, but at the moment it looks like you’re making accusations with no facts to back them up.

You can level the same ‘beta test’ argument against any software as there will almost always be bugs in it somewhere – especially one so complex as AP. The main issue I have with it (and I speak as an ex-police officer of 30 years in London,UK and a current owner of a 10k mile Model S) is that it waits too long before nagging you to put your hands back on the wheel – or at least one hand… typically 5 minutes in benign conditions. This is really too long IMO – long enough to become very distracted by something or even to fall asleep. This issue was recently highlighted by Consumer Reports and I support their POV. Otherwise it is a fantastic aid to driving a truly fabulous car and the only other car I would want over the S is a well spec’ed Model 3.

If my word processor crashes, I lose maybe a couple of hours of work. If my car crashes I stand to lose a lot more.

Before we dive into it, let us first state that, for obvious reasons, the words of Elon Musk aren’t always true. Thousands of deaths from people backing out of their garages? This, despite the rear view camera and ultrasonic sensor suite on most non-Autopilot Teslas? It is to laugh.

Kudos to CNN for sticking to quotes from sources, unlike the blatant editorializing found in Eric’s reinterpretation of the article.

By the same argument, we should get rid of air bags, because seat belts are sufficient to save lives. Right?

Wrong. And your constant stream of anti-Tesla FUD is wrong, too.

I won’t spend the time fact checking the “thousands of deaths” part, but factually backing accidents are one of the leading causes of vehicle collisions. And backup cameras with warning systems are a relatively new to the mainstream feature. The vast majority of vehicles on the road still do not have both, or even one.

The ridiculous bit was that he was quoting stats for all cars whereas all Teslas come equipped with rear view cameras.

VERY few cars currently on the roads have rear view cameras or ultrasonic sensors. In fact, rear view cameras will not even be mandatory until 2018!

But nice try again at hating.

Almost every engineering decision involves constantly battling with employees who were being overly cautious or not cautious enough, or overly fast versus cheap enough, etc. etc. etc. So CNN basically confirmed that Tesla was doing engineering? Brilliant.

This goes back to the battle between Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison. Edison thought the high voltages that Tesla wanted to use for long distance transmission were too dangerous, Tesla realized that electric power would never scale if DC was predominant since it could not be transmitted long distances. AC won (although now we have technology to transmit high voltage DC over even longer distances than high voltage AC).

Nothing new here, just a different area of application. Time will tell if lane change assistance and auto braking will win. I personally don’t want such technology, but the CNN interviews do not inform these developments in my view.

“We know Musk is a risk taker who’s more often than not been right…”

Yeah, Musk was right about this statement in a CNN interview in October of 2014: “A Tesla car next year will probably be 90 percent capable of autopilot. Like, so 90 percent of your miles can be on auto. For sure highway travel.”

So here’s YOUR advice to all those pesky concerned engineers: “perhaps it would be in the best interest if Tesla and its employees put their trust in Musk”

Well at least we know who needs to pay the liability expenses. (You know, if you read Tesla SEC filings — and I’m sure that’s too much effort to actually be the ‘expert’ on Tesla — you’ll see that the company carries very expensive ‘first dollar’ insurance for its officers, but is self-insured for other liability. So maybe you’re right.)

Musk absolutely is a risk taker that has been right the vast majority of the time.

Just ask ULA (Boeing/Lockeed Martin) as Space X is going to put them out of business and save the US taxpayers alot of money in the process.

Or you could ask MB who is seeing their cash-cow S Class series totally eclipsed by Model S here and in their backyard of Europe.

realist said:

“…if you read Tesla SEC filings…”

Now, why in the world would any normal person, even a Tesla fan, want to waste his time with that? We’re interested in what Tesla has achieved and is trying to achieve, not the details of its quarterly profit-and-loss statements. The only people that sort of thing interests is stock investors.

So we know why you’re posting FUD here, now don’t we? You pretend to be interested in public safety, but your actual motive is to commit fraud here to manipulate Tesla’s stock price.

Fired for “Performance Reasons”… Nope. That’s Tesla’s way of saying “you’re thinking too much, and wanting to push back deadlines for safety.” Kudos to this engineer for speaking up against Tesla’s reckless ways. (Former employee speaking here)

This is exactly one of the reasons I’m somewhat happy I wasn’t hired there… that and I get paid about the same without the 80 hour work weeks every week, and still love what I do!

This was my first thought when I read that sentence.

What concerns me the most is that Tesla (or Musk) applies Silicon Valley software development standards and mentality to places they do not belong. I am OK when an app crashes on my cellphone, or when a websites doesn’t render correctly but from an autonomous driving system I would expect much higher standards and a lot more regulatory attention, not unlike from ABS or airbag systems.

How is that Autopilot is allowed to travel faster than the speed limit? Also, many jurisdictions require that the driver has to hold the steering wheel or be in control of the car at all times. I am no against relaxing these rules but that should be done before deploying such system in the wild.

Sounds like you got an axe too, as well!

“Even before Tesla reported the first known death of a driver using its autopilot feature, some employees worried the car company wasn’t taking every possible precaution.”

What a perfect example of “The perfect driving out the good.”

If in our everyday lives we always took “every possible precaution”, we’d never get out of bed!

“According to sources, Musk was constantly battling with employees who were being ‘overly cautious’ in regards to Autopilot development, despite Tesla’s official stance that ‘safety is a top priority’.”

I myself have expressed misgivings, sometimes strong misgivings, about Tesla releasing AutoSteer (Beta) “into the wild”, to be used by drivers not specially trained for its use.

However, with only a single reported traffic fatality while using AutoSteer, a case where it very clearly was the fault of the human drivers involved, and not AutoSteer; and with multiple reports of AutoSteer probably having saved lives…

It seems pretty clear that Elon Musk was right to be bold. So kudos to him — yet again — for his vision and his boldness!

From the actual CNN article — Quote: The autopilot team was particularly hard hit by the news. The source close to Tesla called it “very, very difficult” for those employees. They held a team meeting to talk about the crash.

Then they went back to work, brainstorming new radar functionality for the cars with the hope of preventing a similar accident. :EndQuote
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The loss of life is tragic and happens everyday in various cars. Just like the above we hope all car company employees that deal closely with the safety aspects of all these cars respond whenever they hear about a loss of life that *may* be prevented with additional changes *** obviously if drivers are just not driving responsibly then they are the making their own freewill decisions.

That was an axe to grind …as well

So can someone tell me how a perfect autopilot can prevent a trucker doing a wrong turn and a driver so distracted that missed to see an 18 wheeler truck occupying the whole way and as per witness a movie was playing? Autopilot did not kill anyone, autopilot failed to save the life or humans wrong driving.

Exactly.

I expected to see the exact arguments against using Tesla Autopilot that we’re seeing here, when there was a good reason to think that Autopilot was actually responsible. I never dreamed we’d see these arguments when Autopilot was clearly not responsible!

The motive to make Tesla-bashing (or Autopilot-bashing) posts by those who are perpetual Tesla bashers is clear, and other than warning the unwary about them, we can ignore their posts.

What is more puzzling is the posts from those who are not Tesla bashers. As has been pointed out, these are exactly the same wrong-headed arguments we used to see against wearing seat belts, despite the fact that statistics quite clearly showed you’re considerably safer wearing one than not, when riding in a car.

This only matters to the insurance company and possibly Tesla. For sure not to the driver.

A human driver would behave very differently in such situation. Any awake and conscious driver would apply breaks to reduce the speed and possibly try to swerve to avoid the obstacle. Autopilot simply went through it at full speed decapitating the driver and not even noticing the crash. This is exactly the kind of accident people were worried about in autonomous cars.

“Any awake and conscious driver would apply breaks [brakes] to reduce the speed and possibly try to swerve to avoid the obstacle.”

Well, if he (or she) wasn’t drunk… or on drugs… or texting on their phone… or talking to a passenger instead of watching the road… or doing any of a thousand other things that drivers do instead of paying proper attention to their driving.

You write as if all human drivers are always alert and maintaining full control of the car at all times. If that were the case, then auto accidents would likely be at least 95% less than they are, and there would be little need for self-driving cars!

“Autopilot simply went through it at full speed…”

No, the car went through the intersection at full speed. That happened because the driver was improperly relying on Autopilot/AutoSteer to watch the road and control the car for him, despite very clear and repeated warnings from Tesla not to do so.

An autonomous car doesn’t need to be “perfect” to travel at a safe speed, detect a turning semi and slam on the brakes. It only needs to be minimally competent.

It takes a few seconds for a semi to complete a turn like that. Let’s say two seconds elapsed from turn initiation until impact. At 74 mph one travels 215 feet in two seconds. A modern sedan on dry pavement can stop in 170 feet. A minimally competent autonomous system would have slowed dramatically and probably avoided the semi completely.

But, but, but……….. Autopilot is not an autonomous system. St. Elon said so!!!! So does the manual!

Nice try. This is a basic human factors issue. Because Autosteer ACTS like an autonomous system the human brain will, in time, tend to treat it as such. One can overcome this subconscious tendency with constant conscious effort, but it isn’t easy. That’s why Google puts their self-drive beta testers through rigorous training. Anything less is endangers both the driver and others on the road.

Nobody is defending the inability for the vehicle to sense the trailer crossing its path. It’s clearly a flaw that requires a remedy.

P/P: “Now, why in the world would any normal person, even a Tesla fan, want to waste his time with [reading Tesla’s filings]?” It might not have been clear but my post was pointed at Mr. Loveday, who as the author of the article should want to understand the company about which he’s theoretically expert. But nonetheless if you are a “fan”, understanding the business should be important to you, and the filings give you insight that questionable public statements by the company leadership do not. “We’re interested in what Tesla has achieved and is trying to achieve, not the details of its quarterly profit-and-loss statements.” Filings are about far more than P/L. They give you far better understanding of the company. If you worship the CEO and the company I’d highly recommend it. “The only people that sort of thing interests is stock investors.” Nope. “So we know why you’re posting FUD here, now don’t we? You pretend to be interested in public safety, but your actual motive is to commit fraud here to manipulate Tesla’s stock price.” What FUD? Did I invent Musk’s absurd statement? But I genuinely appreciate the compliment about manipulating the share price. Would that… Read more »

Realist said,
“But I genuinely appreciate the compliment about manipulating the share price. Would that I could… sadly I know that this is only a little corner of the internet where roughly 30 people regularly comment and perhaps 1000 distinct viewers regularly click to view.”

~818,003 visitors (not hits/pageviews) from last month…and a good bulk of the “EV-related” stories you see in the mainstream media originate from one of ~5 sources focused primarily on ‘green/EV’ tech.

/just saying

realist said:

“If you worship the CEO…”

If you want to have a serious conversation, and not just throw around emotionally loaded pejoratives, then you should stop suggesting anyone is “worshiping” Elon. I admire and respect him, but I’m certainly not blind to his faults… which I’ve pointed out many times in InsideEVs comments.

” ‘The only people that sort of thing interests is stock investors.’ Nope.”

Really, “nope”? Name one person who reads these sorts of things who is neither an active stock investor nor a stock broker/analyst.

To actually get much out of those quarterly statements, I’d have to learn quite a bit about financial matters… which is a subject upon which I treasure my ignorance. 😉 I’ve learned enough to be able to spot most of the fraud posted online by by short-selling FUDsters, and that’s quite enough for me.

realist protested:

“What FUD? Did I invent Musk’s absurd statement?”

You quoted this from the article:

“We know Musk is a risk taker who’s more often than not been right…”

…then you cited one single example of where Musk made an overly optimistic prediction which clearly turned out to be wrong. Of course, that in no way refutes the observation that Musk has more often than not been right.

Where you go beyond merely being wrong to outright FUD (Fear, Uncertainty & Doubt) is where you go on to insinuate, in a rather sarcastic manner, that Elon isn’t at all concerned about public safety, and only “all those pesky concerned engineers” at Tesla who are.

If Tesla Autopilot/AutoSteer are already saving more lives than they’re costing, and improving the record rapidly, then Elon Musk is absolutely right. And those overly cautious engineers (at Tesla and elsewhere) who are trying to put the brakes on, are wrong… dead wrong.

About 30,000 Americans per year dead wrong.

This is not a dig a Tesla. It is a dig at governments that establish big technical organization charged with setting safety standards not doing their job.

Neither Musk, nor any autopilot engineer should be in the position of deciding for the driving public what constitutes “safe”. This is not a dig a Tesla. It is a dig at governments that establish big technical organization charged with setting safety standards not doing their job. It should be NHTSA or some specifically appointed organization deciding that.

The situation is similar to late arriving FAA drone regulations. It should not take close calls or worst before the government realizes it has a job to do.

Many of these agencies are also understaffed/overworked and still have computer technology that was mainstream in 2006 (I’m not making this up).

And, just like these engineers expressing caution and management ignoring them, you will most likely find that there are a number of regulators who see these things coming, but their superiors either a) ignore them, or b) don’t have the funds to pursue the matter until it’s a crisis.

Thanks to the GOP majorities in Congress for a vast majority of my lifetime, gov’t services and regulation have been twisted, lied about and ultimately financially gutted.

It’s no wonder to me that there are problems with gov’t – we don’t have enough people or the technology to keep up…all because these so-called “fiscal conservatives” are busy “starving the beast” and spreading tax FUD to the gullible public instead of being concerned with solving real problems.