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Tesla faked self-driving demo, Autopilot engineer testifies

Elon should stick to throwing rocks at his truck windows

Allegations that Tesla staged a 2016 video demonstrating full self driving have resurfaced, and this time it's not an anonymous source making the claims – it's testimony from Tesla's own director of Autopilot software, Ashok Elluswamy.

In a partly redacted deposition [PDF] from a 2019 civil case, given in June last year and previously unreported, Elluswamy testifies that the safety and capabilities of Autopilot as demonstrated in the four-minute clip were not consistent, at the time, with what was presented to the viewer. 

At the time the video was recorded in 2016, Elluswamy was a software engineer on the Autopilot team and told lawyers he was directly involved with the making of the video, even sitting in the back seat of the vehicle during tapings. 

"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 the system," Elluswamy said in his testimony, "so in that sense … it was not trying to portray what was the then state of Autopilot," he added.

Under questioning, Elluswamy told the court the route was planned and 3D mapped in advance, it took multiple takes to get a run without the need for human intervention, and – according to the engineer – the car even hit a fence when trying to demonstrate automatic parking. 

Of the video, Tesla CEO Elon Musk said at the time: "Tesla drives itself (no human input at all) thru urban streets to highway to streets, then finds a parking spot." Tesla's page for the video describes it as an example of the full self-driving hardware that comes standard in all Tesla's.

Elluswamy was being deposed in a 2019 case – Sz Hua Huang et al v. Tesla Inc – to do with a fatal 2018 Tesla accident involving Autopilot. In that crash, an Apple engineer died. Tesla said the accident was at least partially the driver's fault because the engineer, Walter Huang, allegedly did not have his hands on the wheel while Autopilot was engaged. 

The engineer's family has sued Tesla, alleging that Autopilot was defectively designed, misrepresented and falsely advertised. In December, Tesla asked the Superior Court of California in Santa Clara County for an order prohibiting additional depositions from its employees in the case, but was denied. 

That 2016 video isn't a new controversy for Tesla, either. In a 2021 New York Times story about Tesla's quest for self driving, the newspaper said several Tesla employees who worked on the video had come forward to claim it was falsely representing Autopilot's capabilities. 

According to the NYT, "The route taken by the car had been charted ahead of time by software that created a three-dimensional digital map … At one point during the filming of the video, the car hit a roadside barrier on Tesla property while using Autopilot and had to be repaired." 

If that sounds familiar, it's more or less what Elluswamy said.

More fodder for the lawyers

Tesla is currently dealing with numerous Autopilot-related lawsuits and government investigations. 

Among other battles, Tesla is being sued by police in Texas who allege defects in Tesla's safety features, which they claim were overlooked to "pump Tesla's share price and sell more cars" that led to a Model X smashing into two parked police cruisers at 70mph (112kph) during a traffic stop. 

Meanwhile, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration opened a formal engineering analysis to look at Autopilot safety issues in June of last year.

California's Department of Motor Vehicles filed a pair of complaints against Tesla in August alleging the company misrepresented its autonomous driving capabilities. That same month, several California Tesla owners filed a class-action lawsuit alleging the Musk-owned automaker hid Autopilot malfunctions from drivers that have caused Teslas to suddenly brake in traffic.

In October, the US Department of Justice announced a criminal investigation into Tesla's self-driving claims.

We've asked Elluswamy and Tesla for comment but haven't heard back. ®

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