The Race to Build Tesla Autopilot

The Wall Street Journal, a publication I read daily and generally quite like, has a recent feature on the drama behind Tesla Autopilot that seems to me a bit unfair.

Indeed, the piece actually quotes Elon Musk saying the same thing:

“In an email, Mr. Musk said he was unhappy with previous Journal articles on the company. “While it is possible that this article could be an exception, that is extremely unlikely, which is why I declined to comment,” he wrote.”

The article dives deep into the internal strife at Tesla over how far and how fast to push Autopilot, Tesla’s suite of advanced driver assistance technologies.

The tone of the piece is that Musk pushed his engineers to release Autopilot beyond its safe capabilities, and as a result many of them objected and ultimately quit.

“Behind the scenes, the Autopilot team has clashed over deadlines and design and marketing decisions, according to more than a dozen people who worked on the project and documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. In recent months, the team has lost at least 10 engineers and four top managers — including Mr. Anderson’s [DS: Sterling Anderson was the Director of Autopilot] successor, who lasted less than six months before leaving in June.”

Despite all of the buildup, however, The Journal ultimately fails to make the case that Autopilot was released too aggressively or that it is unsafe.

Both named and unnamed sources are quoted from as early as 2015, stating that Autopilot isn’t ready for hands-free mode and that Musk pushed a product onto the public that wasn’t safe or ready.

And, to be sure, I favor a management style in which the people doing the work get to make the decisions, instead of Musk’s style, which seems to be to dictate decisions for employees to execute.

But Elon Musk has done pretty well for himself and for Tesla, and The Journal isn’t able to dig up any scandals since 2015, except for the one well-known Autopilot crash in Florida.

Tesla Autopilot may be inherently unsafe, and maybe Musk’s push to release it was reckless. Just because nothing’s gone terribly wrong yet doesn’t mean Musk made the right decision. Maybe Tesla’s just been lucky.

But if a newspaper is going to write a hit piece on a technology product, implying that it’s unsafe, it needs to bring more evidence to the table than uncomfortable quotes from engineers who quit.

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