Tesla CEO Elon Musk reportedly oversaw a 2016 video exaggerating the capabilities of the automaker’s driver assistance system, Autopilot. Emails from the time show that Musk even dictated the title of the video, which claimed to be a self-driving car. He reportedly told the engineers they “didn’t have to code every step of the self-driving feature just for the purposes of the video in question.” Last week, an engineer’s deposition revealed that the car does not drive itself and instead follows a predetermined route on a high-definition map.
If there was any doubt that Musk knew the 2016 Tesla Autopilot demo video was staged, it may have just been dispelled. Bloomberg says it has access to internal Tesla emails that show Musk himself oversaw the deception. I just want to be clear that everyone’s top priority is to demonstrate amazing autopilot handling. “Since it’s a demo, there’s no problem coding any part of it, as we’ll add it with production code later in an OTA update,” Musk said.
On October 19, the day before the video was released, Musk posted a blog post on Tesla’s website. From that day on, all Tesla cars were said to be equipped with the necessary equipment for full self-driving capability. In emails to employees that month, he emphasized the importance of a demonstration to promote the system. Musk saw no downside to this strategy: “I’m going to tell the world that this is what the car *can* do, not what it can do once it’s bought.” . Despite these comments, it has not been revealed when the video was released.
Internal emails show that Musk himself asked the Autopilot team to open the video with the following words: The person in the driver’s seat is only here for legal reasons. He does nothing at all. The car drives itself. Later, Musk wrote while promoting the video on Twitter: Tesla drives on city streets, highways and streets (with no human intervention), then finds a parking space. And when the technology was introduced to Tesla drivers three years later, the results were quite disappointing as the system struggled to act on its own.
These new revelations sparked an online outcry, with several netizens criticizing Tesla for leading them since at least 2016. Tesla knew its cars couldn’t drive themselves, but presented it that way. According to its own employees, Tesla should have disclosed this to prevent customers from thinking its technology was more advanced than it actually was. “Tesla could also have noted that the Model X crashed into a fence while filming the video,” Ashok Elluswamy, director of Tesla’s Autopilot program, detailed the video.
Elluswamy’s testimony was admitted into evidence in a lawsuit against Tesla over a 2018 fatal crash involving former Apple engineer Walter Huang. The lawsuit alleges that the crash was caused by Autopilot errors and Huang’s undue confidence in the system’s capabilities. Federal and state agencies, as well as customers, have criticized Tesla for falsely promoting the capabilities of its driver-assistance systems, Autopilot and Fully Self-Driving (which is not what its name suggests). In fact, Tesla advises drivers to be alert and attentive when the systems are activated.
Last July, the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) accused Tesla of misleading advertising for its systems, which a handful of Tesla customers also alleged in a lawsuit against the company in September. In addition, the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is actively investigating two accidents involving the Autopilot system. Tesla could also face a criminal investigation by the US Department of Justice over its self-driving claims. These statements, even the names Autopilot and Full Self-Driving, are considered misleading.
In 2019, analysts found that the company’s repeated claims that Autopilot reduced crashes by about 40% were false, and that the system may actually have increased crashes by 59%. That same year, the NHTSA notified Tesla that the agency was misleading customers by claiming that the Tesla Model 3 was the safest vehicle it had ever tested. Faced with allegations, Tesla defended itself in November to dismiss a complaint from customers suing for deceptive marketing. He said: “Our failure to achieve the ambitious long-term goal is not a sham.”
In a Twitter Spaces chat in December, the company said its advantage over other automakers as it aims to solve the challenge of fully self-driving is that “Tesla is evolving toward self-driving in a way that no other automaker can.” . What remains to be proven. In real-world conditions, the performance of Autopilot and its improved version, Full Self-Driving, remains average. NHTSA has launched several investigations to determine whether these systems are safe, including after hundreds of reports of ghost braking behavior.
Another from NHTSA is investigating whether Tesla cars could detect the presence of motorcyclists after at least two motorcyclists were killed after being struck by Teslas. The agency is also investigating the tendency of Tesla cars to crash into emergency vehicles. The company may also face criminal prosecution. Deliberately misleading investors or customers remains a crime in the United States, and federal prosecutors are investigating whether Tesla and Musk’s numerous claims about these driver assistance systems meet those requirements.
Elluswamy’s testimony certainly doesn’t help Tesla. And Musk’s direct involvement in the video and subsequent promotion of the ability of Tesla cars to drive themselves comes at a time when the leader’s reputation and credibility are increasingly being questioned. In addition to the distraction on Twitter, Musk promised during Tesla’s third-quarter investor conference that the company would have an “epic end of the year,” but Tesla missed fourth-quarter deliveries. Moreover, the company’s shares are down 65% in 2022.
Musk is currently on trial in the US over a 2018 tweet in which he claimed to have raised funds to take Tesla private. A jury is charged with determining whether the tweet misled investors. Indeed, the acquisition never materialized, but Musk’s tweets at the time precipitated a rally in Tesla’s stock price that ended abruptly a week later when it emerged that he did not have the necessary funds to make the purchase. Soon the stock rose in value and Musk became the richest person in the world until he bought Twitter in late October 2022.
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Elon Musk is being sued in the US over a 2018 tweet in which he claimed to have raised funds to take Tesla private, and will lose the case if the tweet is found to be “misleading”.
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