It is only one day since we pointed out that Elon Musk hung up on the NTSB while the two parties were dealing with the fatal Model X crash investigation and yesterday we found out that while Tesla is pushing the NTSB away, Uber is pulling them even closer. In what may likely prove to be a fantastic strategy move in the race for autonomous driving, it was announced yesterday on engadget that Uber had hired former NTSB Chairman Chris Hart as a safety advisor.
Uber is ready to rethink its safety approach in the wake of its fatal self-driving car crash. The ridesharing firm told Reuters it has hired former NTSB Chairman Chris Hart as an advisor on its broader safety efforts alongside a "top-to-bottom" review of safety in its autonomous vehicle program. Hart is no stranger to self-driving technology: he oversaw the NTSB while it investigated a Tesla crash where Autopilot was involved, and has seen autonomy as just a matter of time.
The review will cover everything from the self-driving system itself to training for the operators. Uber isn't saying more at the moment, but promised additional info soon.
There's a certain amount of public relations maneuvering involved: Uber wants to show that the crash was an isolated incident, and hiring a national safety leader will do that. At the same time, Hart's advice and the review demonstrate that Uber isn't taking the incident lightly. It knows it has to prevent another incident if self-driving cars are going to take off, even if that means taking drastic steps.
As the article says, this move accomplishes a couple of things:
This key hire comes at a time when companies like nvidia and Uber have put a halt to live trials of their autonomous driving projects.
The halt came after several incidents and crashes involving autonomous vehicles and each company – one after the other - pulled their programs in succession after these crashes (with the exception of Tesla leaving its Autopilot feature as standard in its vehicles). These companies are showing intelligence and sensitivity to the situation, whereas Tesla recently blamed its fatal Model X crash on the driver of the vehicle and, as reported several days ago, hung up on the NTSB while communicating with them about the crash. Bloomberg reported on Friday, May 4:
Elon Musk, the feisty leader of an empire to build new-age cars and rockets whose dismissive call this week with financial analysts has drawn controversy, last month hung up on the top U.S. transportation accident investigator.
Robert Sumwalt, the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, held a phone call with Musk on April 11 to tell him that blog posts by Tesla Inc. casting blame on the driver of a Model X for a fatal California crash had gone too far. The NTSB had earlier warned Tesla not to make statements about the accident while it was being investigated by the board.
Sumwalt then said he was taking the unusual step of kicking the company’s representatives off the investigation.
“Best I remember, he hung up on us,” Sumwalt told attendees of the International Society of Air Safety Investigators’ Mid-Atlantic Regional Chapter dinner Thursday. It was his first public comments on the exchange.
One would think that alienating the regulator that may hold the company’s future in its hands is arguably just as much of a transgression as calling conference call analysts "boring", "dry" and "boneheads".
But now, in the dance that the company has done over the last month to try and put a spin on the NTSB investigation news (of the NTSB dropping Tesla from the investigation and not the other way around), we found out the truth from the source directly. Bloomberg continued:
In the speech, Sumwalt had been discussing the NTSB’s long-time practice of enlisting companies and other government agencies to assist its investigations and praised the cooperation it received from Southwest Airlines Co. following an engine failure that killed a passenger on April 17.
After the conversation between Sumwalt and Musk, the company took the initiative and issued a statement saying it “withdrew” from the probe. Only later on April 12 did the NTSB issue a release saying it had actually removed the car manufacturer.
The NTSB is looking at why the battery on the Model X caught fire after the car struck a highway barrier in Mountain View, California, on March 23. After NTSB opened the investigation, Tesla announced that the car was being guided by the semi-autonomous driving feature known as Autopilot and the driver’s hands hadn’t been detected on the wheel for six seconds. NTSB then expanded the probe to look at the autonomous driving issues.
The Bloomberg article concluded:
The NTSB, which is also investigating a January Tesla crash near Los Angeles, hasn’t released a preliminary report yet on the Mountain View crash.
After its removal, Tesla accused NTSB of being “more concerned with press headlines than actually promoting safety” and defended its right to warn other drivers to remain engaged while using Autopilot. The company didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on Sumwalt’s latest speech.
While certainly happening behind the scenes now, the autonomous driving vehicle movement is still moving forward and Uber, by linking up with this former NTSB Chair, may have just positioned itself at the front of the race.