Damaging development? 2016 video used by Elon Musk to promote Tesla’s self-driving tech was staged, senior engineer testifies
A senior Tesla engineer has delivered a potentially damaging statement when he was testified in a court case over a 2018 accident that killed an Apple engineer.
Reuters reported that Ashok Elluswamy, director of Autopilot software at Tesla, said in the transcript of a July 2022 deposition taken as legal evidence, that a 2016 video that Tesla had used to promote its self-driving technology was staged to show capabilities that the system did not have at the time.
The offending video, which remains archived on Tesla’s website, was released in October 2016 and promoted on Twitter by chief executive Elon Musk as evidence that “Tesla drives itself.”
According to Ashok Elluswamy, the Model X was not driving itself with technology Tesla had deployed.
The previously unreported testimony by Elluswamy represents the first time a Tesla employee has confirmed and detailed how the video was produced, Reuters reported.
The video begins with a tagline that reads: “The person in the driver’s seat is only there for legal reasons. He is not doing anything. The car is driving itself.”
According to Reuters, Elluswamy said Tesla’s Autopilot team set out to engineer and record a “demonstration of the system’s capabilities” at the request of Musk.
Elluswamy, Musk and Tesla did not respond to a request for comment, Reuters reported.
To be fair Tesla has repeatedly warned drivers that they must keep their hands on the wheel and maintain control of their vehicles while using Autopilot.
The Tesla Autopilot technology is designed to assist with steering, braking, speed and lane changes but its features “do not make the vehicle autonomous,” the company clearly says on its website.
To create the video, the Tesla used 3D mapping on a predetermined route from a house in Menlo Park, California, to Tesla’s then-headquarters in Palo Alto, Elluswamy reportedly said.
Elluswamy said, according to Reuters, that drivers had intervened to take control in test runs.
When trying to show the Model X could park itself with no driver, a test car crashed into a fence in Tesla’s parking lot, he reportedly said.
“The intent of the video was not to accurately portray what was available for customers in 2016. It was to portray what was possible to build into the system,” Elluswamy said, according to a transcript of his testimony seen by Reuters.
When Tesla released the video, Musk tweeted, “Tesla drives itself (no human input at all) thru urban streets to highway to streets, then finds a parking spot.”
The emergency of this testimony comes as Tesla, faces lawsuits and regulatory scrutiny over its driver assistance systems.
In October it emerged that Tesla was under criminal investigation in the United States over its claims that Tesla electric vehicles (EVs) can drive themselves.
The US Department of Justice had launched the previously undisclosed probe back in 2021, after Tesla EVs were involved in a series of crashes where its automated driver assistance systems were in use, which included fatal accidents.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) also launched a formal investigation of Tesla’s Autopilot, after a series of high profile fatal crashes, back in August 2021.
Then in June 2022, the NHTSA announced it was upgrading its preliminary investigation of the Autopilot driving assistance system, to an “engineering analysis”, which is the step taken before the agency determines a recall.
Reuters noted that the New York Times had first reported in 2021 (citing anonymous sources) that Tesla engineers had created the 2016 video to promote Autopilot without disclosing that the route had been mapped in advance or that a car had crashed in trying to complete the shoot.
When asked if the 2016 video showed the performance of the Tesla Autopilot system available in a production car at the time, Elluswamy was quoted as saying by Reuters, “It does not.”
Elluswamy was deposed in a lawsuit against Tesla over a 2018 crash in Mountain View, California, that killed Apple engineer Walter Huang.
The National Transportation Safety Board concluded in 2020 that Huang’s fatal crash was likely caused by his distraction and the limitations of Autopilot. It said Tesla’s “ineffective monitoring of driver engagement” had contributed to the crash.
Elluswamy said drivers could “fool the system,” making a Tesla system believe that they were paying attention based on feedback from the steering wheel when they were not.
But he said he saw no safety issue with Autopilot if drivers were paying attention.