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Tesla Autopilot VP departs as custom AI hardware development continues

Reports have emerged that Jim Keller, Tesla’s VP for Autopilot Hardware, is leaving the electric car maker and energy company for a job focused on microprocessor engineering at Intel. The announcement about the executive’s departure was confirmed by Tesla on Tuesday, amid the carmaker’s continued efforts to develop its own custom AI hardware.

“Today is Jim Keller’s last day at Tesla, where he has overseen low-voltage hardware, Autopilot software and infotainment. Prior to joining Tesla, Jim’s core passion was microprocessor engineering and he’s now joining a company where he’ll be able to once again focus on this exclusively. We appreciate his contributions to Tesla and wish him the best,” Tesla’s statement said, according to a Bloomberg report.

Keller joined Tesla back in 2016 after working for Advanced Micro Devices, where he helped in the development of the company’s ZEN processors, a generation of high-end x86_64 chips that is widely considered to have closed the gap between AMD and Intel. Just like his tenure in Tesla, Keller’s stint at AMD was rather short, joining the company in 2012 and departing in 2015. AMD’s ZEN chips were first previewed to the public at E3 2016.

Before working for AMD, Keller was hired by Apple after his employer, P.A. Semi, was acquired by the Cupertino-based giant in 2008. Keller was part of the team that designed the first two of Apple’s A-series chips, the A4 and the A5, which were used in the iPhone 4, iPhone 4S, iPad, and the iPad 2. Apple’s A-series processors would go on to become the mobile industry’s golden standard in terms of power and performance, with its latest iteration, the A11 Bionic, getting better multi-core scores than Intel’s i-Series chips equipped in the 2017 MacBook Pro.

Considering Keller’s work experience and his tendency to stay with employers for only a few years, there is a pretty good chance that the foundations for Tesla’s custom AI hardware are already in place. Speaking at the Neural Information Processing Systems (NIPS) conference in Long Beach, California, Musk stated that Tesla is in the process of designing and creating its own AI hardware. Musk even referred to Keller specifically, stating that the engineer’s work will result in custom AI hardware that is industry-leading.

“I wanted to make it clear that Tesla is serious about AI, both on the software and hardware fronts. We are developing custom AI hardware chips. Jim is developing specialized AI hardware that we think will be the best in the world,” Musk said.

Keller’s responsibilities in Tesla will now be shared by two executives. Pete Bannon, a fellow chip specialist from Apple, will lead Autopilot hardware. Andrej Karpathy, an expert in computer vision and deep learning who was hired from OpenAI, will be taking responsibility for Autopilot software. In a statement to the Wall Street Journal, Tesla noted that it would also be raising its investments in its custom AI hardware initiatives.

“Tesla is deeply committed to developing the most advanced silicon in the world. We plan to dramatically increase our investment in that area while building on the world-class leadership team we have in place,” the company wrote.

Tesla Autopilot VP departs as custom AI hardware development continues
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