Musk sad as Tesla self-drive critic gets road safety job

By Eric Johansson

On Wednesday, Elon Musk took a break from celebrating Tesla’s record quarterly earnings to label the appointment of Mary Louise “Missy” Cummings as a senior adviser to the US’s top road safety regulator as one “extremely biased against Tesla.”

Now almost 17,000 Tesla wonks have signed a petition to make the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) revoke the appointment.

Musk, who is rumoured to be on the cusp of becoming the world’s first trillionaire, has a point. Cummings is an engineering and computer science professor at Duke University with a track record of speaking out against Autopilot, Tesla’s self-driving system, branding it as “unreliable and unsafe”.

“I love what [Musk is] doing at SpaceX and I love electric cars,” she told Forbes in 2020. “I’m not bothered by him as a person, I just really want him to reconsider what he’s doing with Autopilot because I think it’s exceedingly dangerous.”

Comments like these illustrate why Musk and his supporters took umbrage when news sites reported that the NHTSA had named Cummings as a new senior adviser for safety.

As is his habit, the world’s richest man criticised the appointment on Twitter, saying: “Objectively, her track record is extremely biased against Tesla.”

Tesla devotees soon followed his lead, lamenting the appointment on social media and issuing a petition against the appointment, arguing that Cummings taking on the role would be a “violation of agency guidelines and ethical principles concerning conflict of interest and bias.”

They referenced both her previous comments and her role as a board member at Swedish LIDAR company Veoneer as reasons to review the decision.

Buttigieg welcomes Musk to set up a meeting

When confronted with the calls to tear up the appointment and with Musk’s comments, transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg said he’d welcome a chat with the Tesla founder.

“He’s welcome to call me if he’s concerned,” Buttigieg told reporters at an event on Wednesday. “We are responsible for making sure that every vehicle on the road is safe.”

Cummings herself echoed the sentiment on Twitter, telling Musk: “Happy to sit down and talk with you anytime.”

The NHTSA’s appointment of Cummings comes after the regulator opened a formal probe to investigate Tesla’s Autopilot system after 12 crashes involving vehicles using the advanced driver-assistance system were reported.

The investigation can also be seen as part of the Biden administration’s efforts to tighten the lax rules of the autonomous vehicle market.

Donald Trump’s time in the White House did little to reel in the Wild West of self-driving cars. Instead, his administration has been linked to an associated reduction in regulatory oversight.

Whatever efforts existed certainly weren’t helped by the previous NHTSA administrator Mark Rosekind leaving the agency in 2017 to join autonomous vehicle startup Zoox.

“For automakers introducing semi-autonomous features in North America, such as Tesla, this lack of oversight meant they could roll out various self-driving functions without needing to demonstrate their safety to the NHTSA,” analysts noted in a recent thematic research report from GlobalData on self-driving cars. “The only guidance the NHTSA offered during that period was that it discouraged the abuse of such autonomous systems.”

Musk making money

The criticism from Musk about Cummings’ appointment comes as Tesla reported record quarterly results on Wednesday.

Tesla beat market expectations by recording $13.76bn in revenue and $1.62bn in net income for the quarter. This was the second time the company has recorded a net income over $1bn and it was up from $331m recorded in the same period last year.

Improved gross margins of 30.5% on its automotive business and 26.6% overall drove the results.

These earnings combined with the skyrocketing winnings of SpaceX has stirred up speculation from Morgan Stanley analysts that Musk may become the world’s first trillionaire.

The analyst Adam Jones said the space exploration company was “challenging any preconceived notion of what was possible and the timeframe possible, in terms of rockets, launch vehicles and supporting infrastructure”, adding that many of Morgan Stanley’s clients have “told us if Elon Musk were to become the first trillionaire … it won’t be because of Tesla.”

The Bloomberg billionaires index estimates that Musk has a $241bn paper fortune, about $42bn more than Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, the world’s second richest man.