Tesla fired an employee after he posted driverless tech reviews on YouTube

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John Bernal, the creator of AI Addict on YouTube.
Courtesy: AI Addict

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

Following Bernal’s dismissal, Tesla also cut off his access to the FSD Beta system in the vehicle he personally owns, a 2021 Tesla Model 3, despite having no safety “strikes” in the software.

The FSD Beta option can best be summarized as a set of new driver assistance features that are not finished or fully debugged. Chief among them is “autosteer on city streets,” which lets the car navigate around complex urban environments without the driver needing to move the steering wheel. Customers must first have FSD, which costs $12,000 up front or $199 per month in the U.S., and then obtain and maintain a high driver-safety score, as determined by Tesla software that monitors their driving habits.

Although Tesla did not put details into writing saying why he was fired, Tesla and other Silicon Valley companies often foster a culture of loyalty. Internal criticisms may be tolerated, but criticism in public is viewed as disloyal.

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

The origins of his channel

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

As a lifelong car enthusiast proud to be working at Tesla, Bernal put in an order to buy a 2021 Model 3 with a long-range battery a few months after he began working there. He took delivery of the car on December 26, 2020.

He says he bought the car in part because Tesla offered 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 exchange.

Amazed by 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 of the AI Addict videos show Bernal driving around Silicon Valley with a friend in his Tesla, using the newest released versions of the FSD Beta software.

Bernal was not alone in posting his experiences with Tesla’s experimental software. Tesla FSD Beta users like Dirty Tesla, Chuck Cook, Kim Paquette and many others rush to review each new release on their channels.

‘I still care about Tesla’

When the company fired Bernal late last month, his written separation notice did not include the reason for his firing. It came after one of his videos depicted a drive in San Jose where his car knocked over bollards while FSD Beta was engaged.

Bernal says before he was dismissed, managers verbally told him he “broke Tesla policy” and that his YouTube channel was a “conflict of interest.”

Bernal said he was always transparent about his YouTube channel, both with his managers at Tesla and with the public. His online resume on LinkedIn, for example, always listed his Tesla employment right alongside his YouTube channel name. Bernal said he had never seen a policy barring him from creating car tech reviews on his own time using his own property.

A copy of Tesla’s social media policy, provided by a current employee, makes no direct reference to criticizing the company’s products in public. The policy states, “Tesla relies on the common sense and good judgment of its employees to engage in responsible social media activity.” 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 disclosed anything in his videos that Tesla had not released to the public. “The FSD Beta releases I was demonstrating were end-user consumer products,” he said.

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

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

That video has since racked up around a quarter million views.

After it first ran, Bernal told CNBC, “A manager from my Autopilot team tried to dissuade me from posting any negative or critical content in the future that involved FSD Beta. They held a video conference with me but never put anything in writing.”

According to an analysis of his channel by CNBC, roughly ten of 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 were not Tesla-related at all.

Bernal shared screenshots and photos that indicate his FSD Beta access was revoked by the company after he was terminated, even though he had not gotten any “strikes” for unsafe driving or improper use of the system. Generally, FSD Beta users are allowed several strikes before access is revoked.

Losing FSD Beta access in his own car has curtailed his ability to create reviews of the system. However, he has attained access to other vehicles with FSD Beta enabled, and plans to continue his independent research and reviews. 

Bernal knew he might attract attention by posting honest FSD Beta reviews. But as long as he was truthful, he said, and given his generally favorable views of the technology, he thought Tesla would allow it or at least formally tell him if he needed to stop before it ever came to his 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 labeled himself a “free speech absolutist.” But his car company has a long history of asking customers and employees not to speak publicly about problems concerning their cars or the business.

For example, like many large companies, Tesla requires its employees to sign an arbitration agreement committing to resolve conflicts with the company without public lawsuits. Employees or temps can legally challenge and sometimes get released from the mandatory arbitration and go on to have their day in court, but those instances have been rare. 

Tesla also used to require customers to sign non-disclosure agreements in exchange for service.

When FSD Beta first rolled out, as CNBC previously reported, the company asked drivers who enrolled in the early access program to be selective or refrain from posting to social media.

Federal vehicle safety regulators worried that the practice could have a chilling effect and hide critical safety complaints from the agency. They initiated a probe into the FSD Beta program as a result.

By September 2021, Musk said at a conference that the company shouldn’t have any restrictions like that at all. He said at the Code Conference during an interview with Kara Swisher that FSD Beta testers were “not really following it anyway.”

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