- Benjamin Zhang/Business Insider
Tesla is shaking up its Autopilot self-driving team, making what might be called a marquee termination by saying goodbye to Chris Lattner, who joined the carmaker from Apple just six months ago to run Autopilot day-to-day.
In classic management doublespeak, Lattner said the arrangement was a bad fit and later commented that “in the end,” CEO Elon Musk “and I agreed that he and I did not work well together and that I should leave, so I did,” Bloomberg’s Dana Hull reported.
Musk is pushing hard on Autopilot at a time when the technology is deviating significantly from what the rest of the industry is pursuing. Tesla’s tech is based on cameras and sensors, while the more advanced efforts from Google and Uber use lidar, a far more expensive option that senses its surroundings with lasers.
It’s tempting to read between the lines of Tesla’s move and conclude that Autopilot is in trouble, stuck at its current level of autonomous driving, with some interesting features such as Summon and Autopark but not yet capable of delivering on Musk’s goal of sending a car from Los Angeles to New York by the end of 2017.
Autopilot is the state of the art for self-driving tech that’s on the road in consumer applications. Everything else is either in the testing phase, intended for a fleet rollout, or less capable than Autopilot. But it’s unclear whether Tesla can use its advantages, such as real-world fleet learning from its plentiful cars, to keep pace with the lidar systems.
That might sound bad, and the shake-up in Palo Alto suggests that Musk is far from happy. But in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter.
The bottom line is that, despite all the buzz around self-driving cars, it remains a sideshow in the auto industry. Just as we were captivated by electric cars in 2010, we’re dazzled by the dream of autonomy in 2017. Electric cars today make up 1% of global sales. Cars that possess anything more than advanced cruise control make up 0% of global sales.
Tesla is wisely building Autopilot into all its current vehicles, including the soon-to-launch Model 3 mass-market car. It makes sense because Autopilot is a $5,000 option at the time of purchase.
For the automaker, however, selling cars that can sort of drive themselves is far less important than simply selling cars.
It would be nice if a Tesla using Autopilot makes a coast-to-coast run this year. But it’s imperative that Tesla make a big move up in annual deliveries if it hopes to hit Musk’s goal of a million by 2020 (the total for 2016 was less than 100,000).
The Autopilot shake-up could perform a useful service: We’re only a month from what is supposed to be the launch of the Model 3, and there has been little in the way of preproduction buzz, suggesting that Tesla could be racing to make its own deadline.
Seeing as though that’s the company’s most important goal, some gossip about what is after all an option in its cars could keep Tesla observers from fully focusing on what really matters.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Business Insider.