WTF?! Do you remember the video released by Tesla in 2016, which demonstrated the Autopilot driver assistance system, including its ability to stop at a red traffic light and start moving when it turns green? According to Ashok Elluswamy, Tesla’s director of Autopilot software, the video was staged.
In recent testimony in a lawsuit against Tesla filed by the family of Wei “Walter” Huang, who died in 2018 when his Model X crashed into a road fence with autopilot turned on, Elluswami said that the purpose of the video was “not to accurately portray what was available to customers in 2016. He had to show what could be built into the system.”
The video begins with a slogan that reads: “The person in the driver’s seat is present here only for legal reasons. He doesn’t do anything. The car goes by itself.”
The clip shows how the Tesla Model X stops at intersections and obeys traffic signals, although Elluswami admitted that at that time the autopilot “did not have the ability to control the traffic light.” He also said the demonstration was “specific to some pre-determined route” rather than using data from the car’s cameras and sensors. “Additional pre—prepared information was used for driving,” he said.
The video was created using 3D mapping along a pre-determined route from a house in Menlo Park, California, to Palo Alto. Elluswamy said drivers intervened to take control during test runs, and while trying to demonstrate the car’s self-parking ability, it crashed into a fence in a Tesla parking lot.
Elluswamy said the video was filmed after Tesla boss Elon Musk asked the Autopilot team to develop a “demonstration of the system’s capabilities.” Musk later promoted the video on Twitter, boasting that “Tesla drives itself (without human involvement) through city streets to the highway, then to the streets, and then finds a parking spot.”
Tesla drives itself (no human input at all) thru urban streets to highway to streets, then finds a parking spot https://t.co/V2T7KGMPBo
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) October 20, 2016
In 2021, the New York Times reported that Tesla used a pre-mapped route in the video, and during filming the car crashed.
Andrew McDevitt, representing Huang’s wife, told Reuters that the video “is obviously misleading if you show this video without any reservation or asterisk.”
After Huang’s Tesla crashed on Highway 101 in Mountain View, California, in March 2018, the car manufacturer claimed Huang was responsible for keeping his hands off the steering wheel despite repeated warnings from the car to take back control. However, the National Transportation Safety Board said Huang has repeatedly complained to friends and family that Tesla often swerves from this particular emergency barrier.
Tesla is facing several lawsuits related to its Autopilot software. There was more controversy last year when the company announced the phasing out of ultrasonic sensors in its cars as part of the transition to Tesla Vision, its camera-based autopilot system, having previously removed radar systems.