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Does the White House and its political allies have it out for Elon Musk?
Tesla bulls seem to think so, and they point to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) as the latest proof of its bias.
On Tuesday, President Joe Biden announced a number of new nominees for senior government posts, including Steven Cliff as NHTSA administrator. Yet it was actually reports over a lesser-known appointment that has the Tesla faithful in a state of uproar, hours before they hope a blowout third quarter will power the stock to new all-time highs. Characteristically, Musk has publicly backed the outrage.
A Duke University professor of engineering, Mary Louise “Missy” Cummings, has been reportedly picked as the agency’s new senior safety adviser, putting her at the front line of any regulatory battles around autonomous driving technology. The choice could hurt the company's fortunes, as she's been highly skeptical of what she considers Tesla’s reckless approach to full self-driving (FSD) in the past.
Musk believes his $10,000 FSD feature will eventually mint tens of billions of dollars in software profits, as people pay extra for an autonomous vehicle. Several times, however, Cummings has gone on the record with critical remarks regarding Tesla's—and Musk's—autonomous driving ambitions. A few landed like—well, this being Twitter—a gut punch.
Making matters worse in the eyes of Tesla investors, Cummings is an independent board member of Veoneer. The Swiss auto parts supplier specializes in active safety systems and advanced driver assistance technology including lidar, a laser sensor that can create detailed three-dimensional maps of the environment by scanning their surroundings.
So incensed, a group of Tesla supporters are now circulating an online petition demanding a review of Cummings’s apparent appointment. The letter is signed by a group calling itself Autopilot Users for Progress.
The NHTSA did not immediately respond to Fortune’s request for comment.
Tesla supporters believe Cummings may have a vested interest in seeing the EV pioneer fail, especially as Musk has argued lidar is prohibitively expensive and wholly unnecessary for full self-driving. Veoneer even lists Tesla in its latest annual report as a company that could potentially compete with it over the “significant business opportunities presented by autonomous driving."
The latest spat puts the spotlight squarely on Veoneer again. It just agreed to be purchased by a consortium led by U.S. chipset manufacturer Qualcomm for the sum of $4.5 billion. Asked by Fortune whether Cummings should resign from her post and sell company shares should she take the NHTSA adviser appointment, a spokesman for Veoneer declined to comment.
The news also comes as sparks fly between NHTSA and Tesla. Following a spate of high-profile accidents, the federal agency sent Tesla a catalog of demands for information, to be met by Oct. 22, about FSD and the more basic autopilot feature that comes standard in every car.
More recently, the NHTSA reportedly took issue when the latter tried to quickly fix a potential safety hazard involving the way its cars drive on standard autopilot when emergency vehicles have pulled to the side of the road. Normally this would require Tesla informing it of its plans and detailing a proposed solution, but instead Musk simply pushed out the software update to the fleet without bothering to coordinate first with the highway safety regulator.
NHTSA isn't the only one in the U.S. government with a bone to pick with Tesla. Jennifer Homendy, the new head of the National Transportation Safety Board, told the Wall Street Journal last month that the carmaker shouldn't roll out FSD beta to its broader U.S. customer base before first addressing safety deficiencies.
Some Tesla bulls believe the increasing political headwinds are linked to the Biden administration and its supporters.
When the White House hosted an electric-vehicle summit to Washington to discuss EV penetration targets, he invited only Detroit’s Big Three: General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis. This might have been easily explainable, as Tesla doesn’t build any combustion engine cars to begin with, were it not for Biden press secretary Jen Psaki telling reporters only unionized carmakers were invited, and that reporters should draw their conclusions.
“Happy to talk”
The Democratic Party maintains long-standing ties to the United Auto Workers. Despite his self-professed mission to save the human race, Musk has subjected his assembly line workers to health risks during the pandemic to ensure production targets are met. From the UAW’s point of view, he has firmly opposed any attempt by employees to organize in his factories, a stance extended even to his upcoming Grünheide plant in union-friendly Germany.
Tesla bulls fear Cummings, who retweeted the reports of her appointment herself on Tuesday, may also have an unhealthy interest in Tesla-critical accounts. She follows on Twitter a number of well-known bears and Musk opponents, including Tesla bear Jim Chanos, while seemingly blocking a number of pro-Tesla accounts, due to "Tesla troll cyberstalking" by "fact-denying" fans.
Meanwhile, some of Tesla's most committed investors now voice concern—some, perhaps facetitiously—that the Biden administration has it in for the stock.
Musk meanwhile continues to give critics cause for alarm. When told by a Cybertruck customer he wouldn't follow through with an order if the vehicle had side windows, the Tesla CEO assuaged him by saying, "They're required by law but designed to be easy to remove by owners."
But Cummings took to Musk’s favorite social media platform to offer him an olive branch. When he tweeted that her track record was "extremely biased," she shot back: "happy to sit down and talk with you anytime."
This story was originally featured on Fortune.com