Tesla’s Autonomous Driving Capabilities ‘Staged’, Engineer Says

An autonomous driving senior engineer at Tesla has said its video promoting self-driving capabilities of the Autopilot system had been staged by the automaker.

Reuters reports that the video released in 2016 purported to show the system boasted automated capabilities, such as stopping at a red light and accelerating at a green light, that the car simply did not have.

The video, still in the archives of Tesla’s website, was promoted on Twitter by Elon Musk as proof that “Tesla drives itself”. However, the engineer, Ashok Elluswamy, director of Autopilot software at Tesla, has given evidence that the Model X featured was not driving itself using the company’s technology. He made the statement in the transcript of a deposition last July taken as evidence in a lawsuit against Tesla for a 2018 fatal crash involving a former Apple engineer.

The testimony by Elluswamy has only just come to light and becomes the first time a Tesla employee has confirmed and detailed how the video was produced. The video carries a tagline saying: “The person in the driver’s seat is only there for legal reasons. He is not doing anything. The car is driving itself.” The engineer said Tesla’s Autopilot team set out to engineer and record a “demonstration of the system’s capabilities” at the request of Musk.

To create the video, the Tesla used 3D mapping on a predetermined route from a house in Menlo Park, California, to Tesla’s then-headquarters in Palo Alto, Elluswamy said. Drivers then intervened to take control in test runs. When trying to show the Model X could park itself with no driver, a test car crashed into a fence in Tesla’s parking lot, he added.

In a transcript of his evidence seen by Reuters, Elluswamy said: “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.”

This revelation will add to the pressures on regulators to demand a recall of Tesla vehicles fitted with the Full Self Driving upgrade of the Autopilot system currently under investigation in the US by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Reuters reports that Elluswamy, Musk and Tesla did not respond to a request for comment.

— Paul Myles is a seasoned automotive journalist based in Europe. Follow him on Twitter @Paulmyles_

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