A Tesla video purporting to demonstrate the automaker’s self-driving capabilities was actually staged, according to claims from a senior engineer at the company reported by Reuters.
The video was shared in a 2016 blog post titled “Full Self-Driving Hardware on All Teslas,” that is still available. Before the nearly 4-minute video begins, the screen flashes text reading, “The person in the driver’s seat is only there for legal reasons. He is not doing anything. The car is driving itself.”
The video then shows a Tesla pulling out of a driveway, stopping at intersections and red lights, traveling on a highway, delivering a person to an office complex and then parallel-parking itself, set to the sound of the Rolling Stones’ “Paint it black.” The driver’s hands hover just below the steering wheel for the duration of the video.
CEO Elon Musk promoted the demonstration on Twitter, writing, “Tesla drives itself (no human input at all).”
But a senior engineer now says the footage was staged, Reuters reported Tuesday.
The news service cited a deposition from Ashok Elluswamy, the company’s director of Autopilot software, that was taken as part of a lawsuit over a driver’s 2018 death in a Tesla.
“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 deposition cited by Reuters.
Elluswamy said the car was driving a predetermined route in the video and that drivers intervened to take control during trial runs, Reuters reported. He also testified that, during attempts to show the Model X could park itself without a driver, a test car crashed into a fence in Tesla’s parking lot, Reuters reported.
Tesla did not immediately respond to a request for comment. On its website, the company cautions that “until truly driverless cars are validated and approved by regulators, drivers are responsible for and must remain in control of their car at all times.”
Lawsuits by families of crash victims
Elluswamy’s deposition was taken as part of a lawsuit in the death of Walter Huang, a 38-year-old Apple engineer who died in 2018 after his Tesla crashed into a highway median on California’s Highway 101. The lawsuit, filed by Huang’s widow, alleges that Tesla promoted its self-driving systems as safer than they truly were.
“Tesla is beta testing its Autopilot software on live drivers,” Mark Fong, the family’s lawyer, charged in a statement.
Huang believed his Model X “was safer than a human-operated vehicle because of [Tesla’s] claimed technical superiority regarding the vehicle’s autopilot system,” the lawsuit states. According to the complaint, after Huang’s death, the carmaker added safety features to the assisted-driving system, including the ability to change lanes independently, transition from one freeway to another, exit the freeway and engage automatic emergency braking. These features would have saved Huang’s life, the suit claims.
Huang family’s lawsuit is scheduled to go to trial in March. The suit is one of several the company faces from families of killed drivers. Since 2016, traffic safety regulators have investigated 35 crashes involving Teslas, in which 19 people have been killed, according to the Associated Press.
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