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Tesla Autonomous Vehicle Chief Drives Off; Latest in a Series of High-Level Departures

But new AI researcher was waiting in the wings.

by on Jun.22, 2017

Chris Lattner, Tesla's director of artificial intelligence, just parted ways with the company.

Tesla has lost another senior manager, this time the head of its self-driving car program who joined the battery-electric automaker only six months ago.

But the departure of Chris Lattner, who had previously been working at Apple, isn’t expected to have more than a short-term impact, Tesla quickly announcing that it would assign some of Lattner’s duties to a new hire, prominent artificial intelligence, or AI researcher Andrej Karpathy.

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“Turns out that Tesla isn’t a good fit for me after all,” Lattner said in a tweet, prompting Tesla to fire back in a statement that, “Chris just wasn’t the right fit for Tesla and we’ve decided to make a change.”

That jabbing leaves it unclear as to whether Lattner decided to quit or was forced out of the company. What is clear is that Tesla has a reputation for being a difficult place to work, with a revolving door constantly spinning as employees from low levels to high leave the company.

(Tesla closing in on deal to build cars in China. For the story, Click Here.)

Much of the blame goes to CEO Elon Musk, numerous insiders have told TheDetroitBureau.com. He is often described as a “visionary,” but just as often portrayed as extremely difficult to work for, demanding senior employees put in the same grueling work schedule, while being intolerant of even the smallest mistakes. Musk, said one former executive now working for another automotive start-up, seldom tolerates being second-guessed on plans and decisions.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk is reportedly tough to work with and the company is losing top managers as a result.

Whatever the exact reason, there has been a stream of managers and executives heading for the doors over recent years, everyone from senior public relations staff to manufacturing and product development engineers. Chief Financial Officer Jason Wheeler scooted from the company in February.

Chris Lattner was recruited by Tesla only a month earlier and was assigned to head the development of Tesla’s Autopilot system. That’s critical technology for the automaker which wants to be among the first to put a fully self-driving vehicle on the road.

Autopilot came under intense scrutiny last year following a crash of a Model S in Florida that killed a former Navy SEAL. Though federal regulators have now put the blame largely on driver Joshua Brown, Tesla decided to make major changes to the original Autopilot technology, starting last autumn. But when Lattner was hired in, this past January, key parts of the development had yet to be completed. That led to a downgrade of the Tesla Models S and X by influential Consumer Reports magazine.

(Tesla’s Musk wants to use solar energy to power up Supercharger charging stations. Click Here for the story.)

The upgrade has largely been completed, so it is unclear why Lattner and Tesla had a falling out. In his tweet, the software developer did add that, “I’m interested to hear about interesting roles for a seasoned engineering leader!”

Tesla actually appears to be splitting Lattner’s duties between two managers. Current employee Jim Keller will oversee Autopilot work, while new hire Karpathy was assigned the role of running Tesla’s AI and Autopilot vision efforts.

Karpathy comes aboard from the nonprofit research lab OpenAI. He previously worked on the DeepMind research project at Alphabet. That’s the high-tech parent of Google which recently spun off its own autonomous vehicle program under the name Waymo.

As fast as Tesla’s door spins, it can be difficult to keep track of anyone working within the Silicon Valley community, especially those involved in automotive, AI and autonomous vehicle programs. Tesla earlier this year recruited a number of managers from Apple which had sharply cut back its own automotive program.

Apple has returned the favor on several occasions, though Tesla CEO Musk sniffed at the idea of losing employees to Apple. “If you don’t make it at Tesla,” Musk said in 2015, “you go work at Apple. I’m not kidding.”

(Tesla adding pickup, semi-truck to line-up. For more, Click Here.)

Ironically, Tesla earlier this year filed a lawsuit against Sterling Anderson, a former director of the Autopilot program, for trying to poach employees for another self-driving start-up.

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