ELON MUSK STORMED INTO THE TESLA OFFICE FURIOUS THAT AUTOPILOT TRIED TO KILL HIM
Way back in 2015, Tesla CEO Elon Musk would frequently give his engineers an earful after his car company’s infamous Autopilot driver assistance tech nearly got him killed during test drives on multiple occasions — though there’s a chance its dangerous behavior may have been due to Musk’s stubbornness on how the technology should be built.
The scoop comes from Walter Isaacson’s new biography of the tech magnate, simply titled “Elon Musk.” Per its chapter on the launch of the driver assistance tech, Musk would learn firsthand that a curve on Interstate 405 caused Autopilot, thrown off by the road’s faded lane lines, to steer into and “almost hit” oncoming traffic.
Whenever this happened, Musk would “furiously” storm into the Tesla office and proceed to chew out his engineers.
“Do something to program this right,” he repeatedly demanded, as quoted in the biography.
For anyone who knows a thing or two about Musk’s treatment of employees behind the scenes, that tracks.
But if Musk wanted safer software, he perhaps should’ve listened to his engineers, who have frequently petitioned over the years to incorporate what’s known as light detection and ranging technology, or LiDAR.
LiDAR is essentially radar that uses light instead of radio waves, and Tesla’s competitors, including Google’s Waymo, have long leveraged it to help their autonomous cars “see.”
Musk, however, has insisted that Tesla’s cars only use optical sensors, likening it to how humans primarily use their eyes to drive, according to the biography, and as such, he’s been tepid on using plain old radar, too.
As well as being a matter of arbitrary principle to him, there’s also the matter of cost: ditching LiDAR makes manufacturing cheaper, according to Musk.
Many of his engineers weren’t on board with that thinking.
“There was just such a gulf between Elon’s goal and the possible,” Tesla senior vice president Andrew Baglino told Isaacson. “He just wasn’t aware of the challenges.”
“We’re trying to have those conversations with Elon to establish what the sensors would need to do,” Baglino added. “And they were really difficult conversations, because he kept coming back to the fact that people have just two eyes and they can drive the car.”
“We told Elon that it was best safety-wise to use it … but it was clear that he thought we should eventually be able to rely on camera vision only, “one young engineer who joined in 2014 recalled, as quoted in the biography.
Clearly, nothing was getting through to Musk. It was only his chief of staff Sam Teller that was able to appease his CEO’s complaints. He came up with a simple solution: getting the lane lines repainted on that pesky curve — which of course, didn’t actually address the underlying problem.
“After that, Musk’s Autopilot handled the curve well,” Isaacson wrote.
Updated to correct an error in describing how radar works.
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