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 capabilities such as stopping at a red light and accelerating at a green light that the system didn’t have, according to testimony from a senior engineer.

The video, which remains archived on Tesla’s website, was posted in October 2016 and promoted on Twitter by Chief Executive Elon Musk as proof that “Tesla drives itself.”

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

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

The video carries a tagline that reads, “The person in the driver’s seat is only there for legal reasons. He does nothing. 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.

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

Tesla technology is designed to help with steering, braking, speed and lane changes, but its features “do not make the vehicle self-driving,” the company says on its website.

To create the video, the Tesla used 3D mapping on a pre-determined route between a house in Menlo Park, Calif., and Tesla’s headquarters in Palo Alto, he said.

Drivers stepped in to take control during practice, he said. Trying to show that the Model X could park 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 accurately describe what was available to customers in 2016. It was to describe what was possible to integrate into the system,” Elluswamy said, according to a transcript. of his testimony seen by Reuters.

When Tesla posted the video, Musk tweeted, “Tesla drives (without any human intervention) through city streets, highway to street, then finds a parking space.”

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

The US Department of Justice has opened a criminal investigation into Tesla’s claims that its electric vehicles can drive themselves in 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 revealing that the route had been mapped out in advance or that a car had crashed trying to finish. the shooting, citing unnamed sources.

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

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

Andrew McDevitt, the lawyer who represents Huang’s wife and who interviewed Elluswamy in July, told Reuters it was “grossly misleading to present this video without any warnings or asterisks.”

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

Elluswamy said drivers could “trick 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 issues with the autopilot if drivers were paying attention.

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

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