The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has recently confirmed that Duke University professor Missy Cummings is poised to be named as its new senior safety adviser. While her credentials as a computer science professor and background as a person knowledgeable about autonomous driving technologies would likely be an essential resource for the NHTSA, Dr. Cummings has exhibited something quite peculiar in social media — She appears to have a serious bias against Tesla, particularly surrounding the company’s Autopilot and Full Self Driving programs.
Over the years, Dr. Cummings, through her personal Twitter account, frequently posted overtly negative statements about Tesla, its vehicles, and its CEO Elon Musk. A number of Tesla owners and supporters who claimed to have not interacted with Dr. Cummings online also observed that they seem to have been preemptively blocked by the incoming NHTSA safety official.
Everybody has a personal bias about something they are passionate about. As such, it is understandable for the Duke University professor to adopt a skeptical stance on Tesla and its Autopilot and FSD programs. There is such a thing as a healthy dose of skepticism, after all. However, or at least based on the incoming NHTSA senior safety official’s Twitter feed, Dr. Cummings appears to have crossed the line from objective to subjective when it comes to Tesla and its technologies. The same goes for her stance regarding CEO Elon Musk. In March 2020, for example, Dr. Cummings seemingly joked about needing someone to stop her from punching Elon Musk in the face.
Punching jokes aside, the Duke University professor also stands as a present member of Veoneer, a Swedish LIDAR company. Publicly available SEC disclosures indicate that Dr. Cummings has received restricted stock units in Veoneer worth about $400,000 a year at present market prices. Considering that Tesla is a company directly competing with Veoneer in the way that it is developing autonomous driving systems with only a vision-based system, there seems to be a conflict of interest at play.
It should be noted that Dr. Cummings’ seat at Veoneer was not disclosed when she published a paper (which was later updated to remove inaccurate details about a fatal Tesla crash) criticizing systems such as Autopilot for their possible dangers. And so far, the incoming NHTSA senior safety adviser has not shared if she would be leaving her post at the Swedish LIDAR company, especially since she would soon be advising a US safety agency on driver-assist systems that adopt both LIDAR and non-LIDAR solutions.
Interestingly enough, Dr. Cummings’ criticism of Tesla and its Autopilot and FSD programs seems to stem from the fact that the company’s vehicles lack of equipment such as the LIDAR sensors provided by Veoneer. In an appearance at The Robot Brains Podcast earlier this year, the Duke University professor remarked that she is “basically an albatross around Elon’s and Tesla’s neck” and that “Where (she’s) going after is his (Elon Musk’s) desire to drop radar off of his cars and now go to vision-only.”
Dr. Cummings further noted that “There’s no vision research out there which doesn’t think that’s crazy and is gonna kill someone.” In a 2019 tweet, the incoming NHTSA safety official also noted that the NHTSA should require Tesla to disable Autopilot, since it “easily causes mode confusion.” This was a similar take from her post in 2018 when she noted that Elon Musk’s Tesla is the only “killer robot” present today.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk has noted on Twitter that the Biden administration’s appointment of Dr. Cummings as a senior safety official for the NHTSA is quite “odd,” and in a later post, Musk also observed that “Objectively, her track record is extremely biased against Tesla.” In response to Musk’s post, the incoming senior safety official for the NHTSA noted that she was “happy to sit down and talk with you (Musk) anytime.” Hopefully, such a discussion could really happen with as little bias from both sides as possible, and with absolutely zero punches being thrown at the Tesla CEO.
The NHTSA’s appears to have its eye on Tesla recently. Earlier this month alone, and as the agency’s probe on several Autopilot crashes on stationary emergency vehicles continued, the NHTSA asked Tesla to explain why it rolled out a safety improvement to Autopilot through an over-the-air software update without issuing a recall.
This was quite an interesting question from the NHTSA, seeing as the Autopilot update was done as proactive measure that would allow Teslas to operate in a safer manner on the road, not as a response to a defect. This was despite Tesla accounting for only nine crash injuries with first responder vehicles in the past 12 months, a small fraction of the 8,000 injuries that were reported by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) involving a stationary emergency vehicle in the United States in a year.
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