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Frustrated Musk Shakes Up Autopilot Team

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Elon Musk, chief executive officer of Tesla Inc., speaks to members of the media while departing from federal court in New York, U.S., on Thursday, April 4, 2019. U.S. District Judge Alison Nathan telegraphed her initial thoughts as the SEC and Elon Musk’s lawyers presented their arguments over whether the Tesla Inc. CEO should be held in contempt for tweets the agency says violated an earlier agreement. Photographer: Natan Dvir/Bloomberg

Several key Tesla engineering managers working on its Autopilot semi-automated driving feature left the company after CEO Elon Musk told some employees he was unhappy with the progress in developing fully automated driving capabilities, according to one current and one former Tesla employee who have been involved in the effort. He is also upset that some team members have told him they can’t meet the timelines he has set for developing the technology, they said.

At least 11 members of the software team, or close to 10% of the total group, including some longtime members, departed in the past few months, according to multiple people with knowledge of the situation. Several of the remaining managers are now working directly with Mr. Musk. These departures follow Mr. Musk’s removal of the Autopilot group’s leader Stuart Bowers around the start of May, a move first reported by website Electrek, which also reported on some of the other exits. Mr. Musk also elevated other people within the Autopilot team as part of a broader shake-up.

THE TAKEAWAY
• Autopilot team trying to adapt tech for city streets
• 13-year Tesla vet takes over Autopilot path-planning team
• Shake-up follows investor demonstration seen as a success

A Tesla spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.

The departures mirror the churn atop Tesla, which has been a constant for several years. The company’s vice president of manufacturing production left recently, as did the heads of legal, security, finance, communications and several other VPs and senior managers in recent months. Tesla’s stock is down 25% this year amid various difficulties, including apparent weaker demand for electric vehicles in the U.S., though the company recently said it set a record for the number of cars it delivered in a quarter.

Mr. Musk’s unhappiness with the Autopilot group appears to stem from difficulties it has had in adapting the software, which was designed to automatically steer Tesla vehicles on highways, to work with city driving, according to the current and former Tesla employees. The Autopilot team for some time has been trying to get the software to work in cities as part of the broader goal of achieving “full” self driving. Mr. Musk has promised that Tesla will have “fully” self-driving capabilities by next year on city streets and highways.

Mr. Musk “has sold people on full autonomy” capabilities for Tesla vehicles within a year or so and he wants to deliver on that, the employee said.

Yet achieving full autonomy is complicated by the work Tesla has to do just to improve the automated steering features of Autopilot for Tesla cars now on the road, whose software the company updates regularly. “Supporting [Autopilot for] 500,000 cars on the road and trying to do new stuff is a challenging task,” said a person with direct knowledge of the recent shake-up.

The changes on the Autopilot team surprised some members because it occurred after Tesla successfully demonstrated some full self-driving capabilities for investors in April near the company’s headquarters. The significance of the demonstration was limited, according to one employee, because it was generally confined to specific routes.

Among the people who left the Autopilot group are Frank Havlak, who led controls and path planning—basically, figuring out where the Tesla should drive—and one of his deputies, Nenad Uzunovic; Drew Steedly, who led perception; Ben Goldstein, who led the simulation team and has already landed at another self-driving vehicle developer, GM’s Cruise. Those four individuals along with seven other recently departed members of the team either did not comment for this article or could not be reached for comment.

Among those who were elevated after the shake-up are Ashok Elluswamy, who now leads the “perception” and computer vision teams; Milan Kovac, who works on firmware and embedded systems engineering; and CJ Moore, the head of quality control, who took over the simulation team previously run by Mr. Goldstein, according to a former employee. (An in-depth look at the Autopilot group’s managers and rank-and-file employees can be found here.) Drew Baglino, a 13-year veteran of Tesla who had been overseeing engineering for battery cells and other components, took over Mr. Havlak’s group.

Safety Questions

Meanwhile, questions remain about the safety of the existing automated steering functions of Autopilot, which are the centerpiece of Mr. Musk’s plan to leapfrog other developers of self-driving car technology such as Alphabet’s Waymo. The currently available highway steering features, which promise to handle on- and off-ramps and change lanes without the aid of the human driver, are themselves imperfect.

And fixing them is akin to a game of Whac-A-Mole in which ordinary Tesla owners who signed up to give feedback to Autopilot developers identify bugs and relay them to the team to fix. (Mr. Musk himself is an important tester of the newest versions of the software.)

Some of the highway-driving problems Autopilot regularly faces involve failures to properly change lanes automatically. In some cases, the cars don’t recognize vehicles that are likely to be in the Tesla’s path, forcing the driver to take control to avoid a collision, the employee said. Or the cars believe there is a vehicle in its path even if there is not, and thus the car won’t change lanes on its own even if the driver wants it to.

Despite the struggles, members of the team believe Tesla and its existing fleet on the roads have some advantages compared to other developers of self-driving car prototypes.

Now, as Mr. Musk tries to position Autopilot as a solution for automated driving on city streets, the technical difficulty level is higher—as is the risk of collision compared to highways. On city streets, lane lines are sometimes absent or ill-defined compared to highways, posing problems for Autopilot engineers working on upcoming versions of the software, said the current employee. And the system often doesn’t know how to recognize parked cars because it is not a common feature of highway driving, this person said.

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Source: https://www.theinformation.com/articles/frustrated-musk-shakes-up-autopilot-team?utm_content=article-3697&utm_campaign=article_email&utm_source=sg&utm_medium=email

Author: Amir Efrati

Image Credit: Bloomberg

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