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The long road ahead for Tesla’s Autopilot


Good morning! This Tuesday, Tesla's Autopilot is in the NHTSA hot seat, Blue Origin puts NASA in another hot seat, and Yik Yak's back, all right!

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The Big Story

The tip of the iceberg for self-driving regulation

The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has opened a preliminary investigation into the Autopilot feature on an estimated 765,000 Teslas following crashes involving emergency vehicles.

On paper, NHTSA is looking into a pretty specific road hazard that played into a dozen or so incidents. Most of the 11 accidents it identified occurred at night and involved road flares at other accident scenes, lights on first-responders' cars and trucks or other points of illumination.

  • The agency said it would "assess the technologies and methods used to monitor, assist, and enforce the driver's engagement with the dynamic driving task during Autopilot operation."

But the real news here may be that the government is getting more serious about when human drivers are actually, well, doing the driving. That's because humans have to actively monitor their Teslas (and other automated systems) even when using driver-assistance technology. The drivers in many incidents involving automated systems seemingly relied on their Teslas to act as machine chauffeurs, with sometimes deadly consequences.

  • The National Traffic Safety Board concluded, for instance, that Wei "Walter" Huang may have been distracted by his iPhone leading up to his fatal 2018 crash.
  • Meanwhile, in an accident that killed two in Texas earlier this year, it appeared that no one was in the driver's seat, although Musk disputed that Autopilot was engaged.

Teslas do have some safety features to ensure a human is in control, but investigations have suggested that lax systems could have played a part in crashes.

  • Consumer Reports actually found earlier this year that it could trick a Model Y into a test run with no one in the driver's seat.
  • And after an investigation into a 2018 crash, the NTSB, which is separate from NHTSA, said it found that Tesla's automated system "permitted the driver to disengage from the driving task."

It seems the NTSB has been watching the issue for a while. The NTSB — which unlike NHTSA doesn't have regulatory powers — has actually called out what it sees as its fellow government agency's failure to put in place minimum safety standards for monitoring whether drivers are paying attention when using systems like Autopilot.

  • "To date, NHTSA has shown no indication that it is prepared to respond effectively and in a timely manner to potential [automated vehicle] safety-related defects," NTSB told NHTSA in a letter in February.
  • The NTSB also called out Tesla extensively.

Even NHTSA previously has had its own tangles with Tesla. In 2018, the agency told Elon Musk that Tesla "has issued a number of misleading statements" in portraying itself as uniquely safe — as opposed to having scored alongside other carmakers in the top tier of safety.

  • By January of this year, NHTSA was asking Tesla to recall 158,000 Model S and Model X vehicles over touchscreens that stopped working.
  • The company eventually agreed to issue a voluntary recall.

NHTSA could eventually demand a recall, or it could opt to do nothing, according to Reuters. A recall would likely restrict how and when Autopilot should be used, and would definitely cast a shadow on the perception that eventually Teslas will drive themselves — a perception that Tesla is always quick to capitalize on. The investigation itself was enough to take a bite out of Tesla's stock price, which may show that without Autopilot, a Tesla is just another expensive electric car.

— Ben Brody (email | twitter)


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People Are Talking

Viu wants to keep up its momentum in the streaming space, its CEO Janice Lee says:

  • "Our aim is to continue to be frontrunners in the digital entertainment space in Asia. We want to create a service in Asia for Asia, but we also understand Asia is not one region."

Tech companies are facing way more patent lawsuits during the pandemic. Intellectual property lawyer Laura Masurovsky isn't surprised:

  • "During times of economic uncertainty, companies tend to look for other ways to monetize their assets."

On Protocol: LendingClub CEO Scott Sanborn says the company's customer acquisitions will soon drive results:

  • "We believe over time, our ability to not just solve a lending problem for them but help them manage spending and savings will create a deeper engagement and allow us to grow customer value."

Making Moves

Walmart is looking for a crypto expert. The hire will help create a "digital currency strategy and product roadmap."

Jay Graber will lead Bluesky, Twitter's project focused on changing the way social media works. Graber founded a social events startup and has worked as a crypto developer.

Nitin Arora left Blue Origin for SpaceX. Arora worked on the human landing program at Blue Origin.

David Richter joined DoorDash as VP of corporate and business development. He's held senior roles at Lime and Uber.

Instacart COO Asha Sharma is joining AppLovin's board. Before Instacart, Sharma worked as VP of product at Facebook.

Saty Bahadur is Upwork's new CTO. He most recently worked at Amazon as a general manager.

Tschudy Smith is ForgeRock's new chief people officer. She most recently served as senior VP of people and communities at Cisco.

In Other News

  • T-Mobile confirmed a data breach involving millions of users, but the company said it hasn't yet figured out whether personal customer data was involved. T-Mobile also said that it can't name the number of records affected until it wraps up its investigation.
  • On Protocol | Policy: Justice Clarence Thomas has been firing warning shots at the tech industry. And many of them sound a lot like the words of Josh Divine, one of Thomas' clerks and a former counsel in Josh Hawley's office.
  • Facebook is still working to ban the Taliban. The company considers the group a terrorist organization, and has a team removing Taliban-promoting content from Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram. But keeping up with encrypted messages on WhatsApp presents a particularly hard challenge.
  • Yik Yak's back. Everybody's favorite controversial social network is back on the App Store, and trying to do the whole "anonymous social" thing without encountering all the bullying and harassment problems of the last Yik Yak.
  • Blue Origin is suing NASA, taking the company's fight for the lunar lander deal to a whole new level. Blue Origin is claiming the agency's evaluation for the deal, which was given to SpaceX, was flawed.
  • China took a stake and board seat in Beijing ByteDance Technology, according to The Information. The company, which holds business licenses linked to Douyin and Toutiao, sold a 1% stake to an organization owned by three state entities and allowed the Chinese government to choose a board director.
  • Colonial Pipeline's ransomware attack compromised personal information of nearly 6,000 individuals. The company is sending notification letters to those people, which includes current or former employees and their family members.

One More Thing

Your restaurant vaccine verification

Requirements for indoor activities are all over the place right now; depending on what state or county you're in, some facilities might require masks, and others might mandate vaccines. Or both! OpenTable is trying to help restaurants navigate those protocols with a new tool it's launching later this month that will label diners as "verified for entry."

After a restaurant verifies a person's vaccination status, the information is sent to OpenTable (just the status, not any personal information). Once patrons are marked as "verified for entry," they won't have to show their vaccine card at that restaurant — or any related restaurants in a restaurant group — the next time they decide to dine out, streamlining the time between getting to the restaurant and getting food to your mouth.


The key to tackling ransomware is disrupting the ransomware supply chain — developers, affiliates, infrastructure services providers, launderers and cashout points — and the blockchain is the only data source that ties these actors together. So while it may seem counterintuitive at first, ransomware groups' use of cryptocurrency for ransom payments is actually beneficial to ransomware investigations.

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