The head of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), Pete Buttigieg, has appointed Missy Cummings to an advisory role of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The agency enforces vehicle safety standards, among other things. Normally, most people wouldn’t think anything of news like this. But Elon Musk and the Tesla Twitterati have called Cummings out for perceived anti-Tesla bias, and now it’s a thing people are talking about online. Like most Twitter exchanges, this one is primarily bullshit. Cummings is exceptionally qualified for this job.
Tesla’s dedicated fans and friends have brought up that some of Cummings’ past tweets, people she follows, and criticism of Full Self-Driving (FSD) could unfairly sway our governmental authorities against Tesla’s technology. Also, Cummings is an independent board member for Veoneer, a company that makes LIDAR. LIDAR, of course, can be involved in some autonomous vehicle operations. Cummings has been critical of Tesla’s camera-only approach for Full Self-Driving, and some have insinuated that her involvement with Veoneer and insistence on LIDAR could unfairly color the NHTSA against Tesla.
Cummings is a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Duke University. She also is the director of the Humans and Autonomy Laboratory, and Duke Robotics. She holds a doctorate in systems engineering, and her Duke bio says that human-unmanned vehicle interaction and human-autonomous system collaboration are the main focuses of her research. She is a very well-qualified, knowledgeable person that should be an asset to the NHTSA and the DOT.
That said, some of the critiques against her appointment aren’t necessarily baseless. Though Buttigieg pushed back against Musks’ grumpy tweets saying, “He’s welcome to call me if he’s concerned,” according to a report from Reuters. In an ideal world, this would have been the end of this controversy.
We don’t live in an ideal world, though, do we? Sandy Munro, automotive engineer and head of consulting firm Munro & Associates, posted a 12-minute rant against the appointment of Cummings to the NHTSA. In that video, Munro lambasts the U.S. government for taking steps to stifle an American company and letting China surpass us in some sort of technological economic cold war.
Tesla’s FSD has been under criticism from a growing set of legislators, journalists, and even regular people. Initially pitched as a utopian new tech for drivers to “set it and forget it” and let their vehicles drive them to their destinations, it has hit a hard wall of reality as of late. Videos have gone viral on YouTube, Twitter, and even TikTok, as the FSD suite routinely fails with little warning, makes questionable driving decisions, or even puts the driver in direct danger. Whether or not Tesla’s FSD is ready for prime time, is kind of a battle for the courts and our legislative bodies here.
We could bury ourselves in the nuances of Tesla’s FSD suite (or any other autonomous driving setup), but the details aren’t all that relevant to this particular argument. Zooming out, the main crux of the issue is this: Does this system work, and is it safe? For some, likely including Cummings, the answer seems to be no.
Munro’s well known in online automotive communities, but his impartiality has been called into question before. Like when his initial teardown of a Tesla Model 3 was exceedingly negative, remarking that the car was “built like a ’90s Kia.” Then, about a year and a half later, his teardown of another Model 3 was glowing, leading some to suspect that other factors were at play and were influencing his about-face on Tesla’s cars. Shortly thereafter, it was revealed that he owned Tesla stock, calling his impartiality in question. Munro claimed to have sold the Tesla stock, but this latest tirade in which he unashamedly advocates for Tesla to beat an (so far entirely theoretical) investigation into FSD, calls it into question again. The whole rant feels oddly partisan, and weirdly Sinophobic, stroking the undercurrent of U.S.-China tensions.
Caring about Cummings’ perceived anti-tesla bias is irrelevant. American exceptionalism shouldn’t include giving companies wanton freedom that could harm the general public, solely because we need to “beat China,” or whoever other country or ethnic group we’ve decided to make the boogeyman. I do not care about Tesla, Ford, or any other OEM — they do not pay my bills. They all should be held to account.
Cummings’ tie-up with Veoneer doesn’t detract from criticism that camera-only-based autonomous systems have severe shortcomings. Cummings’ pointed, researched criticism of Tesla’s FSD, and research of human-Artificial Intelligence interactions should be an asset to crafting an informed policy decision with respect to autonomous vehicles.
We need to cut all the bullshit and simply ask: Does this system work, and is it safe? That is the NHTSA’s job. Whether or not that entails an investigation or new legislation at the behest of the NHTSA or DOT remains to be seen.