Tesla video promoting self-driving was staged, engineer testifies

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

The video, which remains archived on Tesla̵[ads1]7;s website, was released in October 2016 and promoted on Twitter by CEO Elon Musk as proof that “Tesla is driving itself.”

But the Model X did not drive itself with technology that Tesla had deployed, Ashok Elluswamy, director of Autopilot software at Tesla, said in the transcript of a July deposition taken as evidence in a lawsuit against Tesla over a 2018 fatal accident involving a former Apple ( AAPL.O) Engineer.

The previously unreported testimony from Elluswamy represents the first time a Tesla employee has confirmed and detailed how the video was produced.

The video has a tagline that reads: “The person 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 construct 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 has warned drivers to keep their hands on the wheel and maintain control of their vehicles while using Autopilot.

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

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

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

“The intention of the video was not to show 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 posted the video, Musk tweeted: “Tesla drives itself (no human input at all) through urban streets to highways to streets, then finds a parking space.”

Tesla is facing lawsuits and regulatory scrutiny over its driver assistance systems.

The US Justice Department launched a criminal investigation into Tesla’s claims that its electric vehicles can drive themselves by 2021, after a series of crashes, some of them fatal, with Autopilot, Reuters has reported.

The New York Times reported in 2021 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 trying to complete the shoot, citing anonymous sources.

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

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 representing Huang’s wife who questioned Elluswamys in July, told Reuters it was “obviously misleading to show that video without any disclaimer or star”.

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,” tricking a Tesla system into thinking they were paying attention based on feedback from the steering wheel when they weren’t. But he said he saw no safety issue with Autopilot if drivers were paying attention.

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

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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