NHTSA Needs Advisors Who Understand How Convolutional Neural Nets Work

In an interview with Marketplace Tech, Missy Cummings, the newly named senior advisor of safety for the National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration, spoke about how hard it would be for AI to recognize a stop sign if it was covered with kudzu. If the NHTSA is going to have a presence in autonomous technology and artificial intelligence, the advisors need to actually know how they work. And they need to fully study the presentation that Tesla gave during AI Day.

In her interview, Cummings said:

“I can show a convolutional neural net a million images of a stop sign, and it will learn what a stop sign is from those images. But if it sees a stop sign that doesn’t match exactly those images, then it can’t recognize it. And this is a huge problem, because if a strand of kudzu leaves starts to grow across just the top 20% of a stop sign, that is enough to make that algorithm be dumb, and it doesn’t recognize it, because it’s never seen a stop sign with one strand of kudzu leaves across it.”

This is not how neural networks work. Twitter user, @AmuchBetterFace explained brilliantly:

“Neural nets learn what’s important in an image and what to ignore. They pick out the red octagon shape, white letters, and proportion of those letters relative to the whole sign. The kudzu is just noise and would be ignored.

“It would not have been hard for Cummings to set up a basic experiment with a partially covered stop sign and test to see if a Tesla could recognize it. But she didn’t even do that simple DD. The ignorance is appalling. Taxpayers deserve real experts.

“The concept is similar to image stacking used in astrophotography. Since noise is random, combining several photos averages out the noise while the stars (the signal) get amplified and stand out more clearly.

“So a neural net trained on millions of stop sign images learns to recognize the ‘signal’ of a stop sign (red octagon, white capitalized letters that spell STOP), and ignore the noise of minor obstructions, even if those obstructions were never in the image database.”

She also spoke about Tesla and its “religion.” She questioned whether Tesla should be allowed to call its technology Full Self-Driving and based that on the fact that it’s not quite there yet. She also said that Tesla isn’t ever going to have a robotaxi program and noted that although she loved Tesla and its products, FSD and Autopilot underdeliver in terms of performance and that they are dangerous.

Regarding the so-called religion, she cited one Tesla owner who was arrested for being in the backseat of his car. The driver stated that he was already warned once but that he would keep doing it because Elon Musk knows what he is doing and that he fully believes in Tesla.

Now, I agree that the gentleman was in the wrong, but Tesla has stated on its website that FSD isn’t fully there yet and that drivers need to pay attention. I have never seen Elon condoning behavior like he was engaged in. Cummings didn’t mention the various warning Tesla provides either.

“And so what I find most interesting about that statement is that one man is vocalizing what so many people believe. They believe that this technology really can be fully self-driving, despite all the warnings and despite all the statements and the owner’s manual, and you having to agree that you’re going to pay attention. Despite all of those warnings, there’s some belief likely based in calling a technology Full Self-Driving and calling it Autopilot where people believe in the religion of Tesla full self-driving, and that is dangerous.”

Her focus was more on Tesla owners and what they think of the technology than understanding the technology itself. I think that what a lot of Tesla owners and supporters, myself included, don’t like about Cummings is that she is biased against Tesla and its autonomous technology. If she wasn’t, she wouldn’t have written that IEEE report while not disclosing her conflict of interest (serving on the board of Veoneer, a competitor of Tesla’s) and blocked anyone who offered valid criticism.

I understand blocking those who harass you, but I never once harassed her. And I specifically said in that first article I’d written about her not to. We don’t do that — we don’t lower ourselves to the standards of bullies and “TSLAQ.”

The NHTSA needs people who will not only understand but have the desire to learn about the technology Tesla is developing and be open-minded enough to work with Tesla — not be against it. Cummings is a professor and an intelligent woman, yes. But some of her actions have me wondering what her motives are.

Missy Cummings and “TSLAQ”

One thing that is rather unsettling was her association with the fringe group of anti-Tesla conspiracy theorists who constantly stalk Elon Musk and his supporters on Twitter. She may have deleted her screenshots, but Twitter user @Kristahps shared a thread of screenshots of Cummings’ posts, likes, and interactions. Some of the interactions were supporting tweets from well known trolls — trolls who have attacked me personally.

She also joked about getting into a fight with Elon Musk. On one hand, it’s just a joke, but on the other, this is a senior advisor for safety for the NHTSA joking about fighting Elon Musk. However, the tweet was posted in March of 2020, so it is old — perhaps it was smart of her to delete her account after all. To be fair, I, too, have fantasized about punching a few folks out of sheer frustration. We’re human, after all.

Some Advice To Missy Cummings

If you are by chance reading this, then I have some advice to offer. Instead of viewing the Tesla community as a cult or religion, as your interview implied, see them as the citizens that you are trying to protect. And then listen. Listen to our criticism and try to understand why we believe in the technology.

And put the mindset of “they are worshippers” out of your mind. Calling supporters of Tesla a cult psychologically creates an “us versus them” mentality which is dehumanizing.

If safety is something you truly care about, then know that we are actually allies. You, me, the Tesla community, and Tesla itself all want the same thing. We want safer cars. I don’t want to have to worry about someone not paying attention while I’m at a crosswalk. FSD will save lives. Also, look into the instances where Autopilot has saved lives. There’s tons of video footage.

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