In 2016, the Tesla company released a video in which it showed the operation of its autopilot system, in particular, the video demonstrated that the Model X electric car can stop at a red traffic light and start at a green one. However, according to the director of Autopilot software, the video was staged, reports Reuters.
The over 3 minute video still remains in Tesla’s website archives, it was released in October 2016 and promoted on Twitter by CEO Elon Musk as proof that “Tesla is driving itself.”
But the Model X didn’t have such self-driving technology at the time, Ashok Elluswamy, Tesla’s director of Autopilot software, said in a transcript of July testimony admitted as evidence in a lawsuit against Tesla over a fatal 2018 crash involving a former Apple engineer.
Elluswamy’s previously unpublished testimony is the first time a Tesla employee has confirmed and detailed how the video was created.
The video includes a tagline that says, “The person in the driver’s seat is only there for legal reasons. He is not doing anything. The car is driving itself.” Elluswamy said Tesla’s Autopilot team set out to design and record a “demonstration of the system’s capabilities” at Musk’s request.
Elluswamy, Musk and Tesla did not respond to a request for comment. However, the company warned drivers that they should keep their hands on the wheel and maintain control of their vehicles when using Autopilot.
Tesla’s technology is designed to assist with steering, braking, speed, and lane changes, but its features “do not make the vehicle autonomous,” according to the company’s website.
According to Elluswamy, the Tesla used 3D mapping on a predetermined route from a house in Menlo Park, California, to Tesla’s then-headquarters in Palo Alto to create the video.
According to him, drivers intervened to take control during test runs. While trying to show that the Model X can park without a driver, a test car crashed into a fence in a Tesla parking lot.
“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.”
Tesla is now facing lawsuits and regulatory scrutiny over its driver assistance systems.
In 2021 the US Department of Justice opened a criminal investigation into Tesla’s claims that its electric cars could drive autonomously, after a series of accidents, some of which were fatal.
When asked if the 2016 video demonstrated Tesla’s Autopilot system available in production cars at the time, Elluswamy said, “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.
Andrew McDevitt, the lawyer who represents Huang’s wife and who questioned Elluswamy’s in July, told Reuters it was “obviously misleading to feature that video without any disclaimer or asterisk.”
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.