Inside Tesla: How Elon Musk Pushed His Vision for Autopilot


In May 2016, about six months after Mr. Musk’s remarks appeared in Fortune, a Model S owner, Joshua Brown, was killed in Florida when Autopilot failed to recognize a tractor-trailer crossing in front of him. His car had radar and a camera.

Mr. Musk held a short meeting with the Autopilot team and briefly addressed the accident. He did not delve into the details of what went wrong but told the team that the company must work to ensure that its cars did not hit anything, according to two people who were part of the meeting.

Tesla later said that during the crash, Autopilot’s camera could not distinguish between the white truck and the bright sky. Tesla has never publicly explained why the radar did not prevent the accident. Radar technology, like cameras and lidar, is not flawless. But most in the industry believe that this means you need as many types of sensors as possible.

Less than a month after the crash, Mr. Musk said at an event hosted by Recode, a tech publication, that autonomous driving was “basically a solved problem” and that Teslas could already drive more safely than humans. He made no mention of the accident in which Mr. Brown was killed, though Tesla said in a blog post a few weeks later — headlined “A Tragic Loss” — that it had immediately reported the episode to federal regulators.

While it is not clear that they were influenced by the fatal accident, Mr. Musk and Tesla soon showed a renewed interest in radar, according to three engineers who worked on Autopilot. The company began an effort to build its own radar technology, rather than using sensors built by other suppliers. The company hired Duc Vu, an expert in the field, in October 2016 from the auto parts company Delphi.

But 16 months later, Mr. Vu suddenly parted ways with the company after a disagreement he had with another executive over a new wiring system in Tesla’s cars, the three people said. In the weeks and months that followed, other members of the radar team left as well.

Over several months after those departures, Tesla reclassified the radar effort as a research undertaking rather than one actively aimed at production, the three people said.

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