Elon Musk takes swipe at new transport safety advisor, claiming bias against Tesla

Tesla is being investigated because of crashes involving its cars and stationary emergency vehicles.
Tesla is being investigated because of crashes involving its cars and stationary emergency vehicles. Photo credit: Getty Images

Amid an investigation into the safety of Tesla, CEO Elon Musk has taken a swipe at one of the safety agency's new hires.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has confirmed Missy Cummings, a Duke University engineering and computer science professor, has been appointed as a new senior advisor.

It comes as the agency continues its formal investigation into the AutoPilot system after 12 crashes involving Teslas and stationary emergency vehicles.

Last week the NHTSA sent the electric vehicle (EV) company two separate letters, demanding to know why it hadn't recalled its vehicles to update the software instead of using an over-the-air software update.

The agency also wanted to know why beta testers of the AutoPilot software had to sign non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), saying "any agreement that may prevent or dissuade participants in the early access beta release program from reporting safety concerns to NHTSA is unacceptable".

The NHTSA said it was looking forward to leveraging Cummings' experience and leadership in safety and autonomous technologies, but the appointment drew criticism from Musk, who commonly uses Twitter to take aim at those who've drawn his ire.

"Objectively, her track record is extremely biased against Tesla," the billionaire tweeted. 

That followed accusations from other users which claimed it was a deliberate ploy to slow Tesla down and that Cummings' was shorting Tesla stock to make a profit.

Cummings responded to Musk on Twitter, saying "Happy to sit down and talk with you anytime", and later set her Twitter account to 'protected' so only approved followers can see her tweets.

Criticism of Tesla on social media has been known to cause fans of Musk's company to bombard the person with responses. 

US transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg also hit out at Musk's response, saying issues should be raised directly with him.

"He's welcome to call me if he's concerned," Buttigieg said. "We are responsible for making sure that every vehicle on the road is safe."

Cummings has repeatedly expressed concerns about Tesla's AutoPilot, Reuters reported.

"I have driven several Teslas - autopilot easily causes mode confusion, is unreliable and unsafe. NHTSA should require Tesla to turn it off," she wrote in a 2019 tweet.

Despite the investigation, the company posted a record quarterly profit of US$1.6 billion (NZ$2.2 billion) for the third quarter of 2021, five times what it earned in the same period last year.

The profit was driven by record sales even though there's a global chip shortage and supply chain issues affecting the entire motoring industry as well as other technology companies.