Tesla’s video promoting self-driving was staged, the engineer testified

Jan. 17 (Reuters) – A 2016 video in which Tesla (TSLA.O) used to promote its self-driving technology, was staged to show capabilities such as red-light stopping and green-light acceleration that the system did not have, according to testimony from a senior engineer.

The video that remains archived on the Tesla websiteit was launched in October 2016 and touted on Twitter by CEO Elon Musk as proof that “Tesla drives itself.”

But the Model X doesn’t drive itself with the technology Tesla has implemented, Ashok Eluswamy, Tesla’s director of Autopilot software, said in a transcript of July testimony taken as evidence in a lawsuit against Tesla over a fatal 2018 crash involving ex Apple (AAPL.O) an engineer.

Elluswamy’s previously unreported testimony represents the first time a Tesla employee has confirmed and described how the video was created.

The video features a tagline that reads: “The man in the driver’s seat is only there for legal reasons. He doesn’t do anything. The car drives itself.”

Elluswamy said Tesla’s Autopilot team set out to design and record a “demonstration of the system’s capabilities” at Musk’s request.

Eluswamy, Musk and Tesla did not respond to a request for comment. However, the company warned drivers to keep their hands on the wheel and maintain control of their vehicles while using Autopilot.

Tesla’s technology is designed to assist with steering, braking, speeding and lane changes, but its features “do not make the vehicle autonomous,” the company says on its website.

To create the video, Tesla used 3D mapping along a predetermined route from a house in Menlo Park, Calif., to Tesla’s then-headquarters in Palo Alto, he said.

Drivers stepped in to take control on test runs, he said. When trying to demonstrate that the Model X could park itself without a driver, a test car crashed into a fence in Tesla’s parking lot, he said.

“The intent of the video was not to depict exactly what was available to customers in 2016. It was to depict 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 self-drives (no human intervention) through city streets to freeway to street, then finds a parking space.”

The faces of Tesla litigation and regulatory scrutiny over its driver assistance systems.

The US Department of Justice began a criminal investigation in Tesla’s claims that its electric vehicles could drive themselves by 2021, after a number of crashes, some of them fatal, involving Autopilot, Reuters reported.

The New York Times reported in 2021 that Tesla engineers created the 2016 video to promote Autopilot, without disclosing that the route had been mapped in advance or that a car had crashed in an attempt to complete the footage, citing anonymous sources .

When asked if the 2016 video showed the operation of Tesla’s Autopilot system available in a production car at the time, Elluswamy said, “It doesn’t.”

Elluswamy was ousted in a lawsuit against Tesla over a 2018 crash in Mountain View, California that killed Apple engineer Walter Huang.

Andrew McDevitt, the lawyer representing Huang’s wife and who questioned Eluswamy’s in July, told Reuters it was “obviously misleading to show this video without a disclaimer or an asterisk.”

The National Transportation Safety Board concluded in 2020 that Huang’s fatal crash was likely caused by his distraction and Autopilot limitations. It said Tesla’s “ineffective driver engagement monitoring” contributed to the crash.

Elluswamy said drivers can “fool the system,” making Tesla’s system believe it’s paying attention based on steering wheel feedback when it’s not. But he said he doesn’t see a safety issue with Autopilot if drivers are paying attention.

Reporting by Hyunjoo Jin; Editing by Kevin Krolicki and Lisa Shoemaker

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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