Tesla faked a 2016 video promoting its self-driving technology, according to testimony from a senior engineer reviewed by Reuters.
The video, which shows a Tesla Model X cruising down urban, suburban, and highway streets; stops itself at a red light; and accelerating at green light is still on Tesla website and carries the tagline: “The person in the driver’s seat is only there for legal reasons. He does nothing. The car drives itself.”
CEO Elon Musk used the video as proof that Tesla “drives itself” by relying on its many built-in sensors and self-driving software. But according to Ashok Elluswamy, director of Autopilot software at Tesla, the video was staged using 3D mapping on a predetermined route, a feature not available to consumers.
In his July statement, which was used as evidence in a lawsuit against Tesla over a fatal crash in 2018 involving former Apple engineer Walter Huang, Elluswamy said Musk wanted the Autopilot team to “demonstrate the capabilities of the system” would record.
Elluswamy’s statement also confirms and gives more details about what anonymous former employees are told the New York Times in 2021. While there appeared to be no legal ramifications for Tesla after the NYT’s investigation, an on-the-record testimony from a current employee could spell trouble for the automaker, which is already beleaguered by lawsuits and investigations surrounding its Autopilot and Full Self – Driven (FSD) systems. (To be clear, neither system is truly self-driving. They are advanced driver assistance systems that automate certain driving tasks, but as Tesla has made clear on its website, drivers must stay alert and keep their hands on the wheel when the systems are engaged.)
When electric truck maker Nikola was accused of faking a video of its fuel cell powered Nikola One semi-truck prototype, and finally conceded, Nikola had actually placed the truck on a small hill, causing gravity, not engine , could do its thing – state and federal investigations were launched into both Nikola and its chairman and founder, Trevor Milton. Milton was found guilty of securities fraud charges in October.
Tesla’s fake video was created using 3D mapping on a predetermined route from a house in Menlo Park, California, to Tesla’s office in Palo Alto, according to Elluswamy. Drivers had to step in to take control during test drives, and the scenes left on the cutting room floor included the test car crashing into a gate in Tesla’s parking lot as it attempted to park itself without a driver.
“The intent of the video was not to accurately represent what was available to customers in 2016. It was to show what was possible to build into the system,” said Elluswamy, according to a transcript of his testimony seen by Reuters.
Musk promoted the video at the time, tweeting that Tesla vehicles need “no human input at all” to travel through urban streets to highways and eventually find a parking spot.
Neither Musk nor Tesla, which has disbanded its news agency, have responded in time to TechCrunch’s request for comment.
The revelation comes at a time Tesla is facing dispute for multiple fatal crashes involving the Autopilot system, as well as a U.S. Justice Department criminal investigation into allegations Tesla had made about Autopilot. Another Tesla this week that had FSD enabled suddenly sped up and crashed into a BC Ferries ramp in Canada, resulting in a total loss of the vehicle.
Regarding the 2018 crash that killed Huang, the National Transportation Safety Board concluded in 2020 that Tesla’s “ineffective monitoring of driver involvement” contributed to the crash, which the board said was likely caused by Huang’s distraction and the limitations of the system.
While Tesla tells its drivers to pay attention to the road, there are ways drivers can fool the system into making the car believe they’re paying attention, Elluswamy said. Many motorists even go so far as to buy up Tesla counterweights websites like Alibabawhich can be placed on steering wheels to mimic the weight of human hands otherwise used while the car is in motion.
Despite regulatory scrutiny and reports of crashes, Tesla recently expanded access to its FSD software to customers across North America.