Tesla’s Autopilot driver assistance technology may have just hit a major speed bump.
This week, the company laid off 200 hourly employees working on its Autopilot advanced driver assistance feature, shutting its entire San Mateo, California office in the process. News of the firings, first reported by Bloomberg Tuesday and confirmed by TechCrunch, comes amid a deeper belt-tightening at Tesla and during a period of increased scrutiny of Autopilot by regulators and lawmakers.
Tesla fired 200 of the 350 workers at the office, according to Bloomberg, though TechCrunch pins the total number of workers at the office slightly lower at 276. Regardless, both reports claim the remaining “data annotation” workers will relocate to different Tesla offices, with some likely to make their way to the company’s Buffalo, New York location. The majority of these employees were reportedly low-wage workers working to analyze Autopilot’s massive collection of real-time driving data through data labeling and other techniques.
Tesla didn’t respond to our request for comment.
Elon Musk, Tesla’s CEO, previously mentioned layoffs at the electric carmaker were likely, but it was unknown whether they would come from within the Autopilot division, one of the company’s most vaunted areas for future growth. Reports early this month suggested Tesla was gearing up to lay off around 10% of the company’s total workforce, apparently due to Musk’s “super bad feeling,” about the economy. Around the same time, Musk reportedly ordered all of his executives to implement a hiring freeze, an about-face from recent years which saw Tesla undergo a massive hiring spree.
Though Tesla has so far mostly referred to its recent employee dismissals as “layoffs,” sources speaking with TechCrunch Wednesday many of those were actually terminations based on performance.
Prior to these layoffs (or potential firings), Musk spoke forcefully about his belief in AI and self-driving as integral to Tesla’s future success. The billionaire reiterated that belief this week during a Kilowatts interview posted on YouTube.
“The overwhelming focus is solving self-driving, that’s essential,” Musk said. “That’s really the difference between Tesla being worth a lot of money and being worth basically zero.”
The Tesla shakeup comes amid intense regulatory scrutiny of Autopilot and Tesla’s more advanced Full Self Driving (FSD) feature. At the start of June, the National Highway Safety Administration announced it had significantly expanded its year-long investigation into Autopilot. The NHTSA decided to launch its probe following repeated accounts of Autopilot-engaged Teslas allegedly colliding with first responder vehicles. So far, the NHTSA claims the Teslas under investigation were involved in 16 crashes that have left 15 people injured and one dead. More recently, Tesla reported far and away more driver-assisted crashes than any carmaker in the NHTSA’s first major accounting of crashes that involved driver assistance.