Tesla’s Autopilot Ambitions Just Took Another Big Hit
Tesla has lost another key executive: Jim Keller, the chip-design superstar who was in charge of developing the electric car company’s in-house artificial intelligence processor.
Keller is a veteran of AMD (AMD) and Apple (AAPL), having designed the hit Athlon and Ryzen processors for the former and the A4 and A5 chipsets for the latter. Multiple reports state he’s heading to AMD nemesis Intel (INTC), where he will work alongside another former AMD exec, Raja Koduri.
This is not good news for Elon Musk, who was just months ago proclaiming that, “Jim is developing specialized AI hardware that we think will be the best in the world.”
Keller is the latest in a string of Tesla executives to leave the troubled company. In March, vice president of finance Susan Repo and chief accounting officer Eric Branderiz both departed. The month before, it was global sales and service chief Jon McNeill, who became Lyft’s chief operating officer.
Tesla (TSLA) is having issues with making its Model 3 sedan—earlier this month it paused production for the second time, apparently because of an over-reliance on robots. “Excessive automation at Tesla was a mistake…Humans are underrated,” Musk tweeted at the time.
But automation of the driving experience is key to Tesla’s vision, and the department is having trouble hanging onto its leaders. When Keller joined the company in 2016, he replaced another former Apple employee—Chris Lattner—who lasted all of six months. (Lattner’s predecessor, Sterling Anderson, got into a legal spat with the company after he left to form his own self-driving car startup, Aurora Innovation. They settled a year ago.)
Intel, now with Keller and Koduri on board, has already been making great strides in the self-driving-car chip space.
So who’s Keller’s replacement in charge of Tesla’s Autopilot hardware? Pete Bannon, who like Keller worked for Apple after the iPhone giant bought chipmaker PA Semi. Again like Keller, Bannon has been at Tesla for a couple years.
A Tesla spokesperson told Elektrek, which first reported Keller’s departure, that Bannon would take over Autopilot and “Andrej Karpathy, Tesla’s director of AI and Autopilot Vision, will now have overall responsibility for all Autopilot software.”
Bannon and Karpathy have great credentials, which is good as they really have their work cut out for them. Tesla’s Autopilot program is under close scrutiny after a Model X driver crashed and died last month near San Francisco—the company claimed the driver was at fault, as he engaged Autopilot despite knowing it was “not perfect.”