Buttigieg defends safety agency appointment after Musk claims ‘bias’

Elon Musk voiced concerns on Twitter over the recent appointment of Missy Cummings to a key advisory role at the country’s top traffic authority, but U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg suggested the Tesla CEO speak to him directly about any concerns instead.

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

Musk has taken umbrage with the appointment of Duke University engineering and computer science professor Missy Cummings as a safety adviser at the National Traffic Highway Safety Administration (NHTSA). “Objectively, her track record is extremely biased against Tesla,” he said Tuesday.

Cummings, who directs the Humans and Autonomy Laboratory at Duke, responded that she was “happy to sit down and talk” to Musk anytime.

Cummings has also been a frequent Twitter user, often airing her concerns over Tesla’s driver assistance technology and the company’s methods for rolling it out on the social media platform. In September, she sent a series of tweets criticizing Tesla’s rollout of the “safety score” as a way of allowing drivers access to its “Full Self-Driving” beta program.

But her criticisms of Tesla go back much further. Two years ago, Cummings said (also on Twitter) that Autopilot, Tesla’s advanced driver assistance system, “easily causes mode confusion, is unreliable and unsafe.” She added that NHTSA should require the automaker to turn it off.

Cummings’ nomination to the safety advisory role at NHTSA could suggest a more conservative stance on advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) and Tesla at the agency in the future.

Of course, NHTSA and Tesla are no strangers. In August, the agency opened a safety probe into Autopilot, after discovering 12 incidents in which Tesla vehicles crashed into parked emergency vehicles. Regulators also investigated an incident involving a fatal crash in 2017 and 25 further crashes involving Tesla’s ADAS since that time.

As late as August, in response to a tweet asking Cummings whether she thinks FSD could ever achieve full autonomy, she said: “my prediction is never.” But that doesn’t mean she necessarily thinks LiDAR — light detection and ranging software that measures distance with pulses of laser light — is the answer either. Instead, she suggested that full self-driving will not be possible without “a complete rethink of reasoning under uncertainty” that can only be brought about through advances in deep learning.

Tesla supporters, under the banner “Autopilot Users for Progress,” have started a Change.org petition urging President Joe Biden and NHTSA staff to review the appointment for concerns regarding conflict of interest and bias.