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Tesla’s autonomous vehicles take a notable blow: Lead engineer departs

Billion dollar Tesla just lost one of its lead autopilot engineers to a startup worth less than $100 million, employing a mere 60 or so employees.

Zeljko Popovic, who is autopilot department’s perception lead at Tesla, is leaving the company Popovic's departure means the deadlines for Tesla's autonomous plans might need to be extended Tesla is aiming to put robotaxis on US roads by 2020

It’s not easy being an employee at Tesla, and especially a high ranking one at that. 

With CEO Elon Musk’s often grandiose but unsubstantiated claims making into the public, there is a lot of pressure on the company’s employees to help reach Musk’s often lofty goals. 

Now, one Zeljko Popovic, who is the autopilot department’s perception lead, is off to greener pastures, creating a major hurdle for Tesla’s autonomous plans, especially given that the company is hoping to put robotaxis on US roads by 2020

This news comes from CNBC, which confirmed with San Francisco autonomous trucking start-up Embark that Popovic is leaving for their company. 

As CNBC explains, “Popovic managed the development of highly accurate maps of U.S. highways for Tesla, and created a ‘sensor fusion system’ which combines data from the many cameras, radars and ultrasonic sensors that Tesla vehicles employ.”

At such a critical time when Tesla is aggressively pushing its autonomous agenda, losing Popovic will likely force them to shift deadlines. Coincidentally, CNBC said that Tesla says “it plans to start production of its long-awaited electric semi trucks by the end of 2020.” 

At Tesla’s annual shareholder meeting this week, CEO Elon Musk acknowledged that some Tesla self-driving features still need improvements,” CNBC continued. “’Summon,’ which allows a driver to automatically call their car over from wherever it is parked, was supposed to be widely available by now. But at the meeting, Musk said it is still being tweaked.”

Tesla and Musk are known for making bold claims, but those don’t usually work out for them

Whether the company will able to meet its goals for autonomous cars remains to be seen, but the company will certainly need to pause and reorient its strategy following Popovic’s exit. 

What is Embark Trucks?

As for the company that Tesla has to blame for the loss of their lead engineer, it had raised $30 million in a Series-B round of funding last July. According to Tech Crunch, the company has raised $47 million to date, initially founded in 2016

For a company that had a mere 35 employees in its employ under 12 months ago to be able to nab such a prominent engineer from billion-dollar Tesla Is an accomplishment in and of itself. They must be doing something right. They currently employ more than 60 employees, CNBC reports. 

“Founded in 2015, Embark integrates its self-driving systems into Peterbilt [model] semis rather than building its own trucks completely from scratch, and the trucks are generally operated with human supervisors behind the wheel,” CNBC explains. “It now has more than a dozen trucks and 60 employees. Amazon is using self-driving trucks developed by Embark to haul some cargo on the I-10 interstate highway in California, both companies previously acknowledged.”