Working For Elon Musk No Bed Of Roses; Autopilot Program Claims Another Victim

In January, Chris Lattner left Apple, where he had worked for more than a decade, to head Tesla’s autonomous driving initiative. Lattner can rightly be described as a certified superstar in the world of computing. He is the creator of Apple’s proprietary programming language known as Swift. Lattner is the third head of Tesla’s Autopilot program to leave the company in the past 7 months.

Tesla Model X and Model S

Death On A Florida Highway

It all started when Joshua Brown was driving his Tesla Model S on a Florida highway in May of last year. While in Autopilot mode, his car slammed into a tractor trailer, killing Brown. Up until that point, Tesla had a close working relationship with MobilEye, the Israeli company that supplied the video camera at the heart of the Autopilot system. That led to a rather public spat between Tesla and MobilEye that ended in what amounted to a divorce between the two former partners, with MobilEye accusing Tesla of disregarding its advice when it came to programming the system.

Autopilot Software Revamp

Thereafter, Musk and Tesla decided to rip up the old system and design a new one from scratch, this time using on board radar as the primary input and relegating cameras to a secondary role. The new hardware needed new software. Sterling Anderson was in charge of making that happen.

He left Tesla before the end of 2016. Together with Chris Urmson, the former head of Google’s self driving program, he formed Aurora Innovations and was promptly sued by Tesla, which claimed Anderson was using proprietary knowledge belonging to Tesla in his new venture. That law suit has now been settled more or less amicably with Tesla admitting, grudgingly, that Anderson did not pirate any company secrets on his way out the door.

Next up as head of the Tesla Autopilot team was David Nistér. He was on the job for just over a month when Lattner came on board, replacing him in the process. Now Lattner himself is gone. The new boss of the Autopilot program is Jim Keller who previously worked for chip maker AMD. Keller”has overall responsibility for Autopilot hardware and software,” Tesla says.

Artificial Intelligence To The Fore

But that’s just a part of the story. Great hardware needs great software and Musk has hired one of the best, Andrej Karpathy. He has an international reputation as a leader in computer vision technology and deep learning. Karpathy has one advantage that Lattner did not. He has worked for Elon Musk before at OpenAI, the non-profit artificial intelligence research center co-founded by Musk.

Lattner Departs

Was Lattner pushed or did he jump? An anonymous source tells Business Insider it was both. For its part, Tesla has made the following public statement: “Chris just wasn’t the right fit for Tesla, and we’ve decided to make a change. We wish him the best.”

Lattner tells much the same tale.”Overall I learned a lot, worked my butt off, met a lot of great people, and had a lot of fun. I’m still a firm believer in Tesla, its mission, and the exceptional Autopilot team: I wish them well.” All that well wishing doesn’t accurately describe what insiders describe as both men butting heads regularly during Lattner’s tenure.

The key may be that one phrase, “worked my butt off.” Musk is widely known to be a hard person to work for, someone who makes extraordinary demands on people and expects them to work long hours. Musk himself often puts in 20 hour days and is known as a “my way of the highway” sort of person. He also sets goals that are ridiculously difficult to attain. Not everyone is comfortable working under such conditions. Lattner clearly was not.

One of those goals is a publicly announced promise that a Tesla will drive from LA to NYC later this year without a human being putting once putting a hand on the controls. If that demonstration run doesn’t happen, expect Musk to move the people responsible for the failure  aside and find someone who will meet his expectations. If you work for Elon Musk, it’s best to keep your resumé updated.

Source: Business Insider



Steve Hanley

Closely following the transition from internal combustion to electricity. Whether it's cars, trucks, ships, or airplanes, sustainability is the key. Please follow me on Google + and Twitter.