This week, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) confirmed the appointment of Duke engineering professor Dr. Mary "Missy" Cummings as a special advisor for safety, and despite sounding like the kind of headline that makes your eyes glaze over, it led to massive outrage in the Tesla metaverse. Texas transplant Elon Musk himself publicly accused Cummings of bias, while stockholders and other supporters have mobilized and charged her with conflict of interest, even positing her nomination as an attempt by politicians to influence the stock market.
What has them pulling their hair out becomes clear when looking into Cummings' past comments on Tesla and its CEO, which have ranged from criticism to outright condemnation. Cummings also has a financial stake in an automotive supplier that produces lidar, a technology Musk has repeatedly claimed isn't necessary for self-driving cars. Now that Cummings has a platform in Washington, Tesla's following fears the fox is guarding the henhouse.
Cummings, a former U.S. Navy fighter pilot, was recruited from her professorship at Duke University, where she oversees the school's Humans and Autonomy Laboratory and robotics program. According to Reuters, Cummings has been placed under the Intergovernmental Personnel Act Mobility Program on "temporary assignment" in a senior safety advisory role at NHTSA. There, she will no doubt quickly get her hands on the ongoing feud between NHTSA and Tesla, which has been ordered to justify issuing over-the-air software updates for Autopilot instead of a recall.
As we mentioned, her interest in vehicular autonomy and advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS) isn't exclusively academic. She serves on the board of (and owns 25,911 shares in) Swedish automotive supplier Veoneer, which produces lidar. These systems use arrays of lasers to scan and form 3D models of their surroundings, which cars can then use to navigate their environments, reducing—but not yet eliminating—the driver's role. LIDAR, along with redundant radar and camera systems, are championed as necessary by autonomous vehicle technological leaders Cruise (owned by GM) and Waymo (of Alphabet).
By contrast, Tesla recently dropped radar sensors from Autopilot, and relies entirely on cameras for navigation as of earlier this year. Lidar has never been a part of the Autopilot equation, as Musk dogmatically insists lidar (and the crucial sensory redundancy it offers) is a "fool's errand," and described the tech as "expensive sensors that are unnecessary" in 2019. A combination of quiet business deals and conspicuously lidar-equipped Tesla sightings, however, suggest that Tesla may be trialing the technology after all.
Autopilot's lack of lidar has been identified as a major technical limitation, so while Cummings' stake in a competing technology could constitute a conflict of interest, it's not she, but Musk who stands as the sole champion of their respective technologies. Cummings has also seen the flaws of Autopilot firsthand, having academically tested the software and found it "unreliable and unsafe."
"I have driven several Teslas - autopilot easily causes mode confusion, is unreliable and unsafe @NHTSArecalls should require @tesla to turn it off," Cummings said in a 2019 tweet.
"My lab has been running controlled experiments on Tesla Autopilot & I can say with certainty that they are not even close to being ready. My student on this project should get hazardous duty pay," she added in another tweet later that year.
Cummings has also publicly advocated for arming the NHTSA to better regulate self-driving cars, to which the previous presidential administration was averse, and which the NHTSA lacked the expertise to do—until now.
"The real issue here, not just with driverless cars, is that we have an administration that doesn't like regulation, so we're forced to work within the framework that we've got," Cummings said in an interview with the Union of Concerned Scientists in 2018. "Right now, NHTSA does have the authority to mandate testing and other interventions, but they're not doing it. They don't have any people on the staff that would understand how to set this up. There's just a real lack of qualified artificial intelligence professionals working in and around the government."
Cummings' qualifications and stance toward Tesla were no major threat to it before Washington tuned in, but now that it has, Elon Musk is far from happy. "Objectively, her track record is extremely biased against Tesla," tweeted Musk on Tuesday, before engaging with a sockpuppet account meant to mock Cummings.
To her credit, Cummings addressed Musk's accusations of bias directly on Twitter, telling the executive she was "happy to sit down and talk with you anytime." She isn't the only receptive party in Washington, either, as Reuters reports U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told media on Wednesday that Musk is "welcome to call me if he's concerned."
"We are responsible for making sure that every vehicle on the road is safe," Buttigieg added.
Tesla put on confident airs in its third-quarter earnings call on Wednesday, with Bloomberg reporting Tesla's vice president of engineering Lars Moravy telling press "we expect and embrace the scrutiny of these products and know the truth about the performance will ultimately be all that matters."
Musk's Tweet, though, demonstrates there's some concern behind the scenes at Tesla, else he wouldn't have said a thing. Outside the company, its stockholders and lesser devotees are in an uproar, and have attempted to petition President Biden through Change.org to have Cummings' appointment reconsidered. Prominent engineer-turned-YouTuber Sandy Munro, who has reportedly made hundreds of thousands of dollars from Tesla stock he quietly acknowledges owning, released a rant video about Cummings' nomination, where he accuses the NHTSA consultant of being a "hired gun for the luddites of mediocrity."
He anchors the 12-minute rant video to a 2018 tweet of Cummings, which stated "the only killer robot out there is @elonmusk's Tesla." Presumably, Cummings was referring to the then-recent death of an Apple engineer in a Tesla Model X operating on Autopilot. Munro then goes on several incoherent tangents, blaming "Harvard MBAs" for industries outsourced to China, misrepresenting vehicle crash fatality data, repeatedly mispronouncing the NHTSA acronym and names, and accusing "D.C. thugs" of trying to manipulate stock market in favor of legacy carmakers. It's classic YouTube outrage bait, complete with zero cited sources, and as the cherry on top, hardly any time spent addressing Cummings' hiring to begin with.
While Cummings has a business interest she should divest before acting in her new role with NHTSA, attempts to assassinate her character on that basis ring hollow from parties with established financial stakes in under-regulated vehicular autonomy. And besides, with Tesla on the hook to turn in data related to Autopilot crashes involving emergency vehicles by Friday according to CNBC, Tesla has more pressing concerns than the NHTSA's newest appointee.
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