Tesla partner splits over safety concerns

Worried by the pace of Tesla's progress, an Israeli tech company has parted ways with the auto manufacturer.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP/File
Elon Musk, chief executive officer of Tesla Motors Inc., gives a news conference at the company's headquarters in Fremont, Calif., Sept. 29, 2015.

Once a largely hypothetical question, autonomous vehicle safety is rapidly becoming a practical issue – enough, at least, to create a rift between Tesla Motors and one of its collaborators.

Even in the wake of a fatal Florida crash, Tesla chief executive and founder Elon Musk has moved quickly to push semi-autonomous cars into the mainstream. But some business partners don't agree with the pace. That's why Mobileye, an Israel-based company that develops collision detection and driver assistance systems, parted ways with the auto manufacturer.

"Long term, this is going to hurt the interests of the company and hurt the interests of an entire industry, if a company of our reputation will continue to be associated with this type of pushing the envelope in terms of safety," chairman Amnon Shashua told Reuters.

It's not the first time Mr. Musk has been accused of working too fast, and it likely won't be the last. Earlier this month, one of the entrepreneur's SpaceX rockets exploded on a NASA launch pad in Cape Canaveral. In the wake of that incident, some experts also wondered whether Musk was putting speed ahead of safety.

In May, a Tesla Model S driver was killed after crashing into a tractor trailer while using the car’s Autopilot feature. In a blog post, Tesla wrote that "neither Autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied."

Tesla has stressed that Autopilot users should keep their hands on the wheel and "remain alert" while using the feature. The company has periodically rolled out software updates, including improvements to radar steering. It also notes that the Florida death was the first known fatality involving Autopilot in 130 million miles of driving – well below the global average for non-autonomous cars.

But Mr. Shashua has criticized Tesla for sending a mixed message – flaunting its Autopilot technology while simultaneously warning users about its limitations.

"It is not designed to cover all possible crash situations in a safe manner," Shashua said. “No matter how you spin it, [Autopilot] is not designed for that. It is a driver assistance system and not a driverless system."

In a statement, Tesla said that Mobileye simply couldn't keep up with the automaker's product changes, calling the split "inevitable."

What may also be inevitable is the advent of self-driving cars on public roads. Earlier this week, Uber announced that it would soon begin beta-testing its semi-autonomous taxis in Pittsburgh. There, too, experts have expressed concerns about safety and regulation.

This report includes material from Reuters.

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