John Bernal, creator of AI Addict on YouTube.

Courtesy: AI Addict

Tesla has fired a former Autopilot employee named John Bernal after sharing candid video reviews on his YouTube channel, AI Addict, showing how the company’s Full Self Driving Beta system worked in various Silicon Valley locations.

After Bernal’s resignation, Tesla also cut access to the FSD Beta system in the vehicle he personally owns, a 2021 Tesla Model 3, despite no security attacks in the software.

The FSD Beta option can best be summarized as a series of new driver assistance features that have not yet been completed or have been fully debugged. Chief among these is ‘automatic steering in city streets’, which allows the car to navigate complex urban environments without the driver having to move the steering wheel. Customers must first have FSD, which costs $12,000 or $199 per month in the US upfront, and then achieve and maintain a high driver safety score as determined by Tesla software monitoring their driving habits.

While Tesla hasn’t written any details about why he was fired, Tesla and other Silicon Valley companies often foster a culture of loyalty. Internal criticism can be tolerated, but public criticism is considered disloyal.

Tesla did not immediately respond to a request for comment about Bernal’s situation.

The origin of his channel

Bernal started working for Elon Musk’s electric vehicle manufacturer as a data annotation specialist in August 2020 in an office in San Mateo, California. He was fired in the second week of February this year after transitioning to the role of test operator for advanced driver assistance systems, according to data he shared with CNBC.

A lifelong car enthusiast who is proud to work at Tesla, a few months after he started working there, Bernal placed an order for a 2021 Model 3 with a long-range battery. He took delivery of the car on December 26, 2020.

He says he bought the car in part because Tesla was offering employees free access to FSD — then worth $8,000 — as a perk. Employees had to agree to give the company the right to collect internal and external vehicle data in return.

Amazed at what he saw as Tesla’s “potentially life-saving technology,” he started the AI ​​Addict channel on YouTube in February 2021 to show what the public version of FSD Beta could do.

Most AI Addict videos show Bernal driving his Tesla through Silicon Valley with a friend, using the latest released versions of the FSD Beta software.

Bernal wasn’t the only one to post his experiences with Tesla’s experimental software. Tesla FSD Beta users like Dirty Tesla, Chuck Cook, Kim Paquette and many others rush to rate each new release on their channels.

‘I still care about Tesla’

When the company fired Bernal late last month, its written notice of divorce did not state the reason for his dismissal. It came after one of his videos depicted a drive in San Jose where his car… knocked over the bollards while FSD Beta was on.

Bernal says that before he was fired, executives verbally told him that he had “violated Tesla policy” and that his YouTube channel was a “conflict of interest”.

Bernal said he was always transparent about his YouTube channel, both to his managers at Tesla and to the public. For example, his online resume on LinkedIn always listed his Tesla job next to his YouTube channel name. Bernal said he’s never seen a policy that prohibits him from making automotive assessments on his own time using his own property.

A copy of Tesla’s social media policy, provided by a current employee, does not refer directly to criticizing the company’s products in public. The policy states, “Tesla relies on the common sense and common sense of its employees to conduct responsible social media activities.” It lists social networks including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, Snapchat, LinkedIn, WeChat, and personal blogs, but does not specifically mention YouTube.

Bernal said he never revealed anything in his videos that Tesla had not made public. “The FSD Beta releases I demonstrated were consumer products for end users,” he said.

But his videos sometimes showed problems with Tesla’s FSD Beta system.

For example, in March 2021, AI Addict posted a video titled “FSD Beta 8.2 Oakland – Close Calls, Pestrians, Bicycles!” that showed his car was experiencing several “disconnections”. That’s where FSD Beta required Bernal to manually take control to avoid danger. After 11 minutes and 58 seconds into the video, the Tesla FSD Beta system begins to roll into an intersection, just as a vehicle in front of Bernal’s Model 3 is crossing. He narrowly avoided hitting the other car.

That video has since been viewed about a quarter of a million times.

After it was first run, Bernal told CNBC, “A manager on my Autopilot team tried to prevent me from posting negative or critical content related to FSD Beta in the future. They videoconferenced me but never put anything in writing.”

According to an analysis of his channel by CNBC, about ten of the 60 videos he posted revealed flaws in FSD Beta. Three of the videos focused on other Tesla topics and didn’t discuss FSD Beta, while another three focused on other automakers’ electric vehicles and weren’t Tesla-related at all.

Bernal shared screenshots and photos indicating that his FSD Beta access was revoked by the company after it was terminated, even though he had not been given “strikes” for unsafe driving or improper use of the system. In general, FSD Beta users will receive multiple warnings before access is revoked.

Losing FSD Beta access in his own car has limited his ability to make assessments of the system. However, he has been given access to other vehicles with FSD Beta enabled, and plans to continue his independent research and assessments.

Bernal knew he could grab attention by posting honest FSD Beta reviews. But as long as he was honest, he said, and given his generally favorable view of the technology, he thought Tesla would allow it or at least formally tell him whether to quit before ever losing his dream job.

He told CNBC, “I still care about Tesla, vehicle safety, and finding and fixing bugs.”

Free speech with exceptions

Tesla CEO Elon Musk recently called himself a “freedom of speech absolutist.” But his car company has a long history of asking customers and employees not to talk publicly about problems with their car or the company.

For example, like many large companies, Tesla requires its employees to sign an arbitration agreement in which they commit to resolve conflicts with the company without public litigation. Employees or agency workers can legally challenge the mandatory arbitration and sometimes they are fired so they can spend their day in court, but those cases are rare.

Tesla also used to require customers to sign nondisclosure agreements in return for service.

When FSD Beta was first rolled out, as CNBC previously reported, the company asked executives who signed up for the early access program to be selective about whether to post on social media.

Federal vehicle safety regulators feared the practice could have a chilling effect and hide critical safety concerns from the agency. As a result, they launched an investigation into the FSD Beta program.

In September 2021, Musk said at a conference that the company should have no such restrictions at all. He said at the Code Conference during an interview with Kara Swisher that FSD Beta testers “didn’t really follow it anyway”.

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