Even before Tesla Motors Inc reported the first known death of a driver using the autopilot feature, some employees were worried that the electric car maker was not being careful enough. However, Tesla CEO and founder – Elon Musk – believes the autopilot feature has the potential to save many lives by reducing human error. Musk brushed aside such concerns as negligible in comparison to the overall lifesaving potential of the autopilot system.
Tesla employees had worries over Autopilot
Musk has pushed hard to get the autopilot feature to the market. A report from CNN Money, citing a source close to the automaker, says the main motto of the team is “not to let the perfect be the enemy of the better.” However, for Musk specifically, his driving force “don’t let concerns slow progress.”
As per the interviews CNNMoney conducted with five current and former Tesla employees, including many from the autopilot division (most of them agreed to speak only as anonymous), some employees struggled with this stance of Musk.
Eric Meadows – a former autopilot engineer at Tesla Motors Inc – recalls testing the autopilot feature on a Los Angeles highway last year, a few months before its release. Meadows says in autopilot mode, the electric car struggled to handle the sharp turns. He knew that he was pushing the autopilot’s limits, but he assumed that the consumers would push those limits as well. And, this is why the incident worried him.
Meadows, who was fired from Tesla two months later for reasons related to performance, says “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.” He was scared – in the last two months – that “someone was going to die.”
Musk sided concerns for progress
As per Raj Rajkumar – an autonomous car pioneer at Carnegie Mellon – the employees he met say that it is an understatement to say the automaker is hyper-aggressive.
As per one former Tesla Motors Inc executive, who worked closely with Musk, the CEO pushed back against employees who raised concerns about the autopilot. Musk viewed those concerns as “overly cautious.” In another incident recounted by two other sources, Musk was told that the sensors used for self-parking feature of the electric car might have difficulty recognizing something as small as a cat. As per the sources, Musk in response said that given how slow the car moves in this parking mode, it would only be dangerous to a “comatose cat.”
“It’s hard to believe a Toyota or a Mercedes would make that same tradeoff,” says an assistant professor of system dynamics at MIT Sloan School of Management – David Keith. “But the whole ethos around Tesla is completely different: they believe in the minimum viable product you get out there that’s safe.”