Some Tesla Motors employees had been concerned about the safety of the Autopilot semi-autonomous system but weren’t listened to by management, according to a CNN report.
Tesla employees interviewed by CNN have said the electric automaker was pushing hard on getting the Autopilot software into the hands of customers. They say company management, including CEO Elon Musk, didn’t pay enough attention to their concerns and brushed aside nearly all their objections.
Musk has been a passionate advocate for self-driving systems and believes they are already safer than human drivers and will only get better. He points to 32,000 car related deaths on U.S. roads every year and says many of them could be avoided with the use of computer systems like Autopilot.
Eric Meadows, a former Autopilot engineer at Tesla, got pulled over by a police officer on a Los Angeles freeway while testing Autopilot a few months before it was released last year. He’d been pulled over for weaving all over the road, with the officer suspecting Meadows had been drunk.
Meadows said 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 said. Two months later he was fired.
In one instance of employees being what Musk tended to call “overly cautious,” 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 employee 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.
Raj Rajkumar, an autonomous car researcher at Carnegie Mellon told CNN the Tesla employees he meets at conferences and trade shows tell him “it’s an understatement to say [Tesla] is hyper-aggressive.”
The Autopilot team did win over Musk on one argument. 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.
After the fatality of Model S driver and Autopilot user Joshua Brown in May, police later found a portable DVD player in the car. 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. If the video had been playing on the car’s central touchscreen during the Autopilot crash, it may have triggered public outcry and discredited the Autopilot system even more.