In a US court, a Tesla executive has admitted that a 2016 Autopilot video was a sham.
Teslas have actually been able to drive fully autonomously for years, only the laws don't allow it yet - Tesla boss Elon Musk has been trying to convey this thesis for years. To back up his claim, he had a video shot in October 2016 in which a Tesla Model X drives fully autonomously. Right at the beginning of the film, a note appears in white letters on a black background: "The person in the driver's seat is only there for legal reasons. He is not doing anything, the car is driving itself." ("The person in the driver's seat is only there for legal reasons. He doesn't do anything, the car drives itself").
Then Paint it Black by the Rolling Stones starts as background music (the music in the video included in this article is different for legal reasons) and the Model X confidently masters lane changes, overtaking maneuvers and motorway exits. At the end of the film, the "driver" gets out and walks to a Tesla building while the Model X finds a parking space on its own. A Tesla manager has now testified before a Californian court that this video is a massive deception - the Model X had not even remotely completed the journey fully autonomously.
Ignoring traffic lights and crashing while parking
Ashok Elluswamy is the lead of software development for Tesla's Autopilot driver assistance package. In the summer of 2022, Elluswamy had to testify before the district court in Santa Clara, California. It was about a lawsuit against Tesla over an autopilot accident that killed former Apple engineer Walter Huang in 2018. Referring to Musk's Autopilot promotional video, Elluswamy testified that during filming, the Model X drove into a fence during a parking maneuver. In addition, the car was unable to stop at a red light and then start again. Several times the driver should have intervened and taken control of the car, while the video gives the impression that the journey actually did not require a human driver.
Video produced at the request of Elon Musk
The video of the drive from Menlo Park, where Tesla set up its first showroom in a former Chevrolet dealership building, and the then Tesla HQ in Palo Alto was at the request of Tesla- Boss Elon Musk emerged. When asked by the court whether the video showed the technical capabilities of the autopilot system at the time, the manager replied that it did not. He adds that that wasn't the purpose of the video either. The “New York Times” had already learned about the accident during the video shoot from Tesla insiders in 2021.In addition, the unnamed sources had told the editors that the Model X was equipped with a 3D map specially tailored for this route, which made the precise drive possible in the first place. Ashok Elluswamy also confirmed this statement in court.
Victim family's lawyer sees deception
Andrew McDevitt, lawyer for Walter Huang's widow, outraged Reuters that the video without an asterisk or disclaimer was obviously misleading. The US traffic agency NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) determined in 2020 that the accident was likely a combination of Huang's distraction and a failure of the autopilot technology - this combination seems to be the cause of most such accidents. That's why Tesla's regulator is demanding more effective monitoring of driver alertness. Elon Musk seems to have quite the opposite plans, as he underlined with a tweet at the beginning of January 2023 about the imminent deactivation of steering wheel warnings .
On the German market, the autopilot package is now called "Full potential for autonomous driving" and costs an additional 7,500 euros. In the US, the system is misleadingly called FSD (Full Self Driving) – its price has increased from $5,000 in April 2019 to $15,000 in September 2022 (currently the equivalent of €4,621 to €13,863). For its own protection, Tesla markets the technology as a beta version, so the paying customers are voluntary testers in the legal sense. Customers pay the high price for a system that currently only masters the rather rudimentary autonomy level 2, as Elon Musk confirmed in an interview in October 2022. At the same time, Musk repeatedly emphasizes the fairy tale of fully autonomous Teslas that do not need a driver for purely technical reasons. With every serious autopilot accident, those responsible for Tesla reflexively pull out the warnings noted in the manuals that the autopilot is by no means suitable for fully autonomous driving and that the driver must always have full control of his car.
Meanwhile, the statements made by Tesla manager Ashok Elluswamy in the court record have caused horror among experts. Mahmood Hikmet, developer at the New Zealand robot car company Ohmio, tweeted in perplexity that Elluswamy had admitted on the record that he did not know what these terms mean when it came to basic terms relating to autonomous driving and software development.
Drivers rely on assistance systems
Due to the regular failure of its autopilot system , several lawsuits are pending against Tesla in the USA. In addition, traffic authorities such as the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) have for years been investigating accidents and incidents that have occurred while the autopilot was activated.The incidents also include the involuntary acceleration of Teslas , which has not been resolved to date (early 2023). While Tesla itself takes the position that autopilot makes driving safer, the "New York Times" reports that one autopilot-related accident is reported every day. In 2019, US statistician Randy Whitfield evaluated Tesla's Lane Keeping Assist accident data provided to the NHTSA. He came to the conclusion that there were probably even more accidents with the assistant switched on than without . The New York psychiatrist Vatsal G. Thakkar assumes that people subconsciously quickly rely on existing technology and therefore drive less attentively. Even those who have an automatic in their car drive less attentively than drivers who operate a manual gearbox .
At Tesla, driver attention is only monitored via steering wheel sensors: If the driver occasionally makes minimal steering movements, the autopilot remains activated. Ashok Elluswamy says that the autopilot can be fooled by touching the steering wheel. On the other hand, he emphasizes that an attentive driver with activated autopilot need not fear any safety problems.
It's no big surprise: A Tesla executive has admitted in a California court that a 2016 Tesla video about fully autonomous driving was fake. In reality, the driver had to intervene and there was even a parking accident.
For years, the Tesla autopilot system has been used to cause serious accidents. The authorities have been investigating for years. And for years, Tesla managers have been pointing to the driver's personal responsibility, while Tesla boss Elon Musk claims at the same time that the driver only sits behind the wheel in his cars for legal reasons. At the same time, there is an autopilot accident every day, as reported by the "New York Times". Apparently, some drivers rely on the technology instead of driving with full attention and thus as if there were no assistance systems on board.
Tesla is obviously unable to free itself from the contradiction between its "Our cars can be fully autonomous" advertising fantasies and its simultaneous "Our cars can't be fully autonomous" manual warnings at the same time. The traffic authorities have so far found no way to discipline those responsible for Tesla in this regard. Now it's the courts' turn - the testimonies of the Tesla manager for the autopilot software development are similar to an oath of disclosure and are likely to have consequences for the electric car pioneer.