Another fatal crash has raised new concerns about the safety of Tesla’s Autopilot system — but that’s just part of the troubles facing the automaker as the head of its autonomous driving program announces his departure.
Tesla isn’t the only one struggling to get its self-driving technology to deliver as promised, however. General Motors’ Cruise subsidiary has been blamed for traffic tie-ups in San Francisco. And a test of Apple’s driverless system didn’t go quite as planned, a prototype running into curves, unexpectedly swerving in its lane and nearly hitting a jogger.
Few automakers have invested more effort in getting fully autonomous technology on the road than Tesla, but the automaker has suffered a series of setbacks capped this week by the unexpected departure of Andrej Karpathy who has spent five years overseeing the Tesla Autopilot program.
“It’s been a great pleasure to help Tesla towards its goals over the last 5 years and a difficult decision to part ways,” Karpathy announced through a Twitter post. “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.”
Why Karpathy is leaving now is far from clear as he said he has “no concrete plans,” just a desire for “revisiting my long-term passions around technical work in AI, open source and education.”
Karpathy’s departure follows a move by Tesla to close an Autopilot research center in San Mateo, California. State records indicate 229 people were let go by the automaker.
For his part, Tesla CEO Elon Musk had nothing but praise for the departing Autopilot chief in his own Twitter comments. But Karpathy’s departure comes at a troubling time.
An “essential” program with a troubled safety record
Last month, the South African-born Tesla chief said getting fully autonomous technology into production is “essential” to the carmaker’s long-term success. But despite repeatedly insisting a completely functional version of the most advanced, Full Self-Driving system will be ready this year, there are plenty of skeptics.
It didn’t help that an Autopilot failure could be responsible for a crash in Florida on July 6 that resulted in two deaths.
According to the Florida Highway Patrol, a 2015 Tesla Model S veered off I-75 and into a highway rest area. “For unknown reasons, the Tesla traveled into a parking lot toward a tractor-trailer. The Tesla struck the rear of the tractor-trailer, where it came to a final rest,” a preliminary report by authorities states. It adds that both occupants, a 66-year-old woman and a 67-year-old man, were pronounced dead on the scene.
The fatal incident has triggered what is believed to be the 37th investigation into Autopilot by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration since 2016. And it brings to 17 fatalities linked to Autopilot crashes.
Tesla has also faced a series of lawsuits linked to those fatal incidents, including one filed in February involving a 2019 crash that killed a husband and wife.
What could have been a life-threatening collision involving a prototype Apple autonomous vehicle was narrowly averted, meanwhile.
The tech giant has spent much of the past decade working on Project Titan, an effort to bring out a fully autonomous battery-electric vehicle. There have been a numerous of false starts but Apple now has a number of prototypes it’s testing out, including several sent out on a 40-mile run near Bozeman, Montana, according to the website The Information.
While that test was seen as successful, things apparently didn’t go nearly as well during a test closer to Apple’s Silicon Valley headquarters. The website reports the prototypes had problems holding their lanes after crossing intersections and repeatedly hit curbs. The biggest concern came when one of the vehicles nearly slammed into a jogger, failing to recognize the runner had the right of way when crossing the street.
Apple has faced some of the same problems as key competitors, not only getting its software to work but also keeping talent onboard. For one thing, it recently lost Ian Goodfellow, the scientist heading the machine learning portion of Project Titan.
Exactly what the company plans is a matter of intense conjecture. It’s believed Apple may launch with an EV using Autopilot-like technology. But its long-term goal is to introduce a fully driverless vehicle with no steering wheel or other conventional controls.
That’s a target similar to what Cruise LLC is aiming for. The San Francisco-based subsidiary of GM recently received approval to begin commercial use of driverless vehicles in its home market. But that project ran into an embarrassing setback.
Cruise comes to a halt
Earlier this month, a swarm of those robotaxis simultaneously malfunctioned at a downtown location, some reports suggesting they lost their connection to Cruise’s cloud-based operating system. They brought traffic to a complete halt at the intersection of Gough and Fulton streets for several hours. They only began moving again when Cruise engineers went to the scene and fiddled with their programming.
“We had an issue earlier this week that caused some of our vehicles to cluster together,” Cruise said in a statement. “While it was resolved and no passengers were impacted, we apologize to anyone who was inconvenienced.”
The precise cause of the problem wasn’t revealed but there’s little doubt Cruise officials were pleased they only tied up traffic and didn’t cause any injuries.
Nonetheless, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently issued a report identifying hundreds of accidents caused by semi- and fully autonomous vehicles over the past year. And the agency’s new administrator said that he expects new rules governing the technology will follow.