News broke that Chris Lattner, Tesla’s vice president of Autopilot software, was leaving Wednesday night — its third Autopilot exec departure in the last seven months.
Sterling Anderson, who joined the company in 2014 as the Model X program manager, served as director of Autopilot for one year prior to leaving Tesla last December. That news was largely overshadowed when Tesla announced Chris Lattner, a veteran Apple exec, was joining the company in January.
“Chris just wasn’t the right fit for Tesla, and we’ve decided to make a change,” A Tesla spokesperson wrote in a statement. “We wish him the best.”
The key thing to take away from the news is that Tesla hasn’t actually announced a formal replacement for Lattner.
“Andrej Karpathy, one of the world’s leading experts in computer vision and deep learning, is joining Tesla as Director of AI and Autopilot Vision, reporting directly to Elon Musk,” a Tesla spokesperson wrote in a statement. “Andrej will work closely with Jim Keller, who now has overall responsibility for Autopilot hardware and software.”
Karpathy is actually replacing David Nistér, Tesla’s VP of Autopilot vision, who left the company quietly in March to join NVIDIA, according to his LinkedIn.
Following Anderson’s departure in late December, Lattner became VP of Autopilot software and Jim Keller remained VP of Autopilot hardware. Lattner was assuming the responsibilities of Jinnah Hosein, who had been serving as both VP of Autopilot software and VP of SpaceX software.
Now, Keller is taking on Lattner’s responsibilities, but has Karpathy to assist with the duties overseen by Nistér.
In the last seven months, three executives overseeing Autopilot software have left the company: Anderson, Lattner, and Nistér. The executive shake-up occurs at a critical time for the program.
Tesla began producing cars with a new suite of hardware to support its second-generation Autopilot system last October. That announcement came just a few months after Mobileye, the supplier of chips that provided image analysis for Tesla Autopilot, said it will no longer work with Tesla.
Mobileye chose not to renew its contract with Tesla last July, just a few months after Model S owner Joshua Brown died in a fatal accident while Autopilot was activated.
Tesla has been rebuilding Autopilot to work with the new hardware system ever since, but has been slow to release the features.
Although the hardware is meant to support Tesla’s second-generation Autopilot system, the company only recently restored first-generation Autopilot capabilities via a software update this past weekend.
“It’s definitely been a tough slog transitioning from the Mobileye vision chip to Tesla’s internal vision system, but I think we’re almost there in terms of exceeding the ability of the hardware one cars,” Musk said during a meeting with shareholders in early June.
Tesla will now have to work quickly to achieve its internal deadlines for Autopilot, which includes releasing its second-generation Autopilot system and having a Tesla drive autonomously from Los Angeles to New York by the end of the year.
Musk has already expressed a need for “hardcore” software engineers to get everything done. Tesla is currently looking for at least eight software engineers on its website, all of which describe the job as being “part of a team working towards Tesla’s vision of fully autonomous vehicles.”
Musk said last November that he would interview prospective hires personally and that it was a “super high priority.”
With Lattner out, Tesla has just six months to launch its massive demo and prove itself as the biggest software competitor to Waymo, the self-driving-car company run by Google parent company Alphabet. Along with Model 3 production, 2017 is gearing up to be Tesla’s biggest test yet.
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