It started with a ban from Telsa on driver assistance features like lane-keeping assist. It was a test of whether Tesla — the darling of the tech-savvy — could champion drivers versus automobiles. Since late 2015, Tesla has taken a lead role in autonomous-driving technology. Much of the focus in building it has been the electric carmaker’s vertically integrated strategy of development, manufacturing and service.
But it wasn’t until early 2016 that Tesla set its sights squarely on autonomous vehicles. The automaker asked engineers to explore new terrain to get into the mindset of testers, those who would someday be stuck behind the wheel of one of its cars. A photo of those rebels riding on the roof of a Model S ignited buzz about self-driving technology, as did a publicized poaching binge that had Tesla employees enlisting at companies like Volkswagen and Nvidia. And even some Tesla diehards embraced the notion of this new frontier. In November 2016, for example, a customer in Reno, Nev., used autopilot to hit the road and text someone on a phone as he drove 100 miles — he wasn’t under the influence, just distracted.
But some of the actions by Tesla employees signaled the company had found its footing with the culture shift, and the desire to show that it could transition from technology provider to pioneer of new technology.
Musk was a driving force. He wanted to start production of his Roadster in 2015. Tesla’s next-generation semi truck was delayed for two years to close the design gap, he said, and it would take years to properly engineer and build its battery and power delivery system.
Musk enlisted his sister, Kimbal Musk, who founded a startup called solar charger startup SolarCity and is known for pioneering the concept of rooftop solar panels, to upgrade Tesla’s service business. Tesla eventually ended up buying SolarCity last year.