Tesla and Musk Lose a Key Asset at a Crucial Time

Premium-electric-vehicle maker Tesla has promised that its vehicles will be self-driving by year’s end.

Tesla  (TSLA) – Get Tesla Inc. Report Chief Executive Elon Musk in January renewed his oft-repeated promise that its electric vehicles would be self-driving by year’s end.

“I would be shocked if we do not achieve full-self-driving safer than a human this year. I would be shocked,” Musk said during Tesla’s fourth-quarter-earnings call.

He emphasized: “Being safer than a human is a low standard, not a high standard. People are often distracted, tired, texting. … It’s remarkable that we don’t have more accidents.”

In other words, owners of Tesla vehicles would by year’s end have a feature enabling their cars to drive themselves in any conditions. 

The confidence of the billionaire entrepreneur, who has turned the auto industry upside down, was based on the progress made internally in artificial intelligence and visible in the Autopilot driver-assistance system, including the most advanced option, called Full Self-Driving.

FSD Beta, which has the latest features, enables the vehicles to perform various maneuvers. (You can read about that here.) 

It now goes further: FSD Beta “identifies stop signs and traffic lights and automatically slows your car to a stop on approach, with your active supervision,” Tesla says. 

But FSD does not make Tesla cars autonomous: “All Tesla cars require active driver supervision and are not autonomous,” the carmaker says on its website.

Tesla’s Head of AI Is Leaving

Well, year’s end is only five months away — and Tesla’s top artificial-intelligence executive has just announced his departure from the Austin company after a four-month sabbatical.

“It’s been a great pleasure to help Tesla towards its goals over the last 5 years and a difficult decision to part ways,” Andrej Karpathy, who joined Tesla in 2017, said on Twitter on July 13. “In that time, Autopilot graduated from lane keeping to city streets and I look forward to seeing the exceptionally strong Autopilot team continue that momentum.”

“I have no concrete plans for what’s next but look to spend more time revisiting my long-term passions around technical work in AI, open source and education,” Karpathy continued.

A year ago, Musk said that the Autopilot team at Tesla was led by three people: Ashok Elluswamy, the head of Autopilot engineering; Karpathy, the director of artificial intelligence, and Milan Kovac. 

In an interview in December, the CEO had emphasized the role played by Elluswamy, comments he then reiterated on Twitter. Today, that seems like a way of preparing for Karpathy’s exit.

“Ashok is actually the head of Autopilot engineering. Andrej is director of AI; People often give me too much credit & give Andrej too much credit. The Tesla Autopilot AI team is extremely talented. Some of the smartest people in the world,” Musk said on December 28. 

“Ashok was the first person recruited from my tweet saying that Tesla is starting an Autopilot team!,” Musk doubled down on Dec. 29, 2021. A few months earlier, Musk had insisted that a team stood behind Autopilot.

“Btw, Autopilot software is technically led by Ashok, Andrej & Milan, but it’s very much a ‘knights of the round table’ structure. There are so many talented engineers on Autopilot/AI team & they decide for themselves what to work on. Kinda like Valve,” the tech titan tweeted on July 10, 2021.


Karpathy’s departure appears to reflect Tesla’s struggles to deliver on its promise to deliver self-driving vehicles, some experts say.

“We continue to view Tesla efforts in AV/robotaxi as ‘show me,'” Credit Suisse analyst Dan Levy wrote in a note to clients.

“Thanks for everything you have done for Tesla! It has been an honor working with you,” Musk said after Karpathy announced his departure. 

It was the CEO who also said last March that the director of AI was taking a four-month sabbatical: “Toronto streetcars are not yet handled well by FSD. Btw, @karpathy is on a ~4 month sabbatical,” Musk tweeted on March 27.

Karpathy’s departure comes as Autopilot is the subject of a cascade of investigations by regulators.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is investigating 37 crashes involving automated driving systems since 2016. Of those, 30 involved Teslas, including 11 fatal crashes that have killed a total of 15 people.

The agency also said in documents that it’s investigating a fatal pedestrian crash in California involving a Tesla Model 3. That incident occurred this month. NHTSA also sent a team to probe a Cruise automated vehicle crash in California in June. That caused a minor injury.

NHTSA recently launched an investigation into a July 6 incident that killed two occupants of a 2015 Tesla Model S along Interstate 75 in Florida, a person familiar with the matter told TheStreet on July 11.

The newly confirmed NHTSA administrator, Steven Cliff, recently told the Associated Press that Tesla has been cooperative with NHTSA.

“I think we work well with them,” the head of the watchdog agency told AP, “and when we have identified that there are risks, they’ve taken action, and that’s appropriate.”

In June, the federal agency released data from automakers and tech companies showing nearly 400 crashes over a 10-month period involving vehicles with partly automated driver-assist systems, including 273 with Teslas.

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