Monday, March 20, 2023

Revisiting the cutting edge world of Tesla

A couple of months ago, the NYT argued that Elon Musk's long history of cutting corners with respect to ethics and safety was simply the price to be paid for advancing potentially life-saving technology.

Some of Musk’s most questionable decisions, though, begin to make sense if seen as a result of a blunt utilitarian calculus. Last month, Reuters reported that Neuralink, Musk’s medical-device company, had caused the needless deaths of dozens of laboratory animals through rushed experiments. Internal messages from Musk made it clear that the urgency came from the top. “We are simply not moving fast enough,” he wrote. “It is driving me nuts!” The cost-benefit analysis must have seemed clear to him: Neuralink had the potential to cure paralysis, he believed, which would improve the lives of millions of future humans. The suffering of a smaller number of animals was worth it.

There was, as we pointed out at the time, a subtle flaw in that argument.

With the complicated exception of SpaceX, none of Musk's businesses are on the cutting edge of anything. In autonomous  driving, AI, solar cell development, brain-machine interfaces, tunneling machines, and countless other technologies where Musk has promised revolutionary disruptions, his companies are, at best, in the middle of the pack and, in some cases, not making any serious effort at all. (On a related note, despite attempts to muddy the waters with creative statistics, Tesla spends far less than any of its major competitors on R&D.)

Now Faiz Siddiqui, writing for the Washington Post, has done an excellent deep dive into how Tesla slipped to the back of the pack in self-driving.

Some Tesla engineers were aghast, said former employees with knowledge of his reaction, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. They contacted a trusted former executive for advice on how to talk Musk out of it, in previously unreported pushback. Without radar, Teslas would be susceptible to basic perception errors if the cameras were obscured by raindrops or even bright sunlight, problems that could lead to crashes.

Musk was unconvinced and overruled his engineers. In May 2021 Tesla announced it was eliminating radar on new cars. Soon after, the company began disabling radar in cars already on the road. The result, according to interviews with nearly a dozen former employees and test drivers, safety officials and other experts, was an uptick in crashes, near misses and other embarrassing mistakes by Tesla vehicles suddenly deprived of a critical sensor.


Even with radar, Teslas were less sophisticated than the lidar and radar-equipped cars of competitors.

“One of the key advantages of lidar is that it will never fail to see a train or truck, even if it doesn’t know what it is,” said Brad Templeton, a longtime self-driving car developer and consultant who worked on Google’s self-driving car. “It knows there is an object in front and the vehicle can stop without knowing more than that.”


After Tesla announced it was removing radar in May 2021, the problems were almost immediately noticeable, the former employees said. That period coincided with the expansion of the Full Self-Driving testing program from thousands to tens of thousands of drivers. Suddenly, cars were allegedly stopping for imaginary hazards, misinterpreting street signs, and failing to detect obstacles such as emergency vehicles, according to complaints filed with regulators.


The data showed reports of “phantom braking” rose to 107 complaints over three months, compared to only 34 in the preceding 22 months. After The Post highlighted the problem in a news report, NHTSA received about 250 complaints of the issue in a two-week period. The agency opened an investigation after, it said, it received 354 complaints of the problem spanning a period of nine months.

Months earlier, NHTSA had opened an investigation into Autopilot over roughly a dozen reports of Teslas crashing into parked emergency vehicles. The latest example came to light this month as the agency confirmed it was investigating a February fatal crash involving a Tesla and a firetruck. Experts say radar has served as a way to double check what the cameras, which are susceptible to being washed out by bright light, are seeing.

“It’s not the sole reason they’re having [trouble] but it’s big a part of it,” said Missy Cummings, a former senior safety adviser for NHTSA, who has criticized the company’s approach and recused herself on matters related to Tesla. “The radar helped detect objects in the forward field. [For] computer vision which is rife with errors, it serves as a sensor fusion way to check if there is a problem.”

 Longtime followers of this story will remember Dr. Cummings, fighter pilot and real engineer, This isn't a post on how Musk handles criticism, but if it were, hers would be the first case I'd mention.


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