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Tesla senior engineer reveals: 2016 Autopilot demo video was faked

A senior Tesla engineer’s testimony reveals that the company’s much-touted 2016 demo video of Autopilot, the driver-assisted driving system, was actually faked.

In the video, a Tesla Model X is shown driving around cities, suburbs and highways as it automatically stops at red lights and accelerates through green ones. The ad is still displayed on the Tesla website with the tagline: “The person in the driver’s seat only has to sit there for legal reasons. He doesn’t have to do anything, this car can drive itself.”

▲ Tesla’s 2016 Autopilot demo video (Source: Netease Technology Report)

Tesla CEO Elon Musk used the video as evidence that the company relies on many built-in sensors and driver-assisted driving software to help make the vehicle self-driving.

However, Ashok Elluswamy, director of Tesla’s driver-assisted software Autopilot, said in his latest revealing testimony that the Model X in the video did not use Tesla’s technology for its self-driving test, but rather used 3D maps to navigate on a predetermined route. In other words, Tesla Autopilot does not have dynamic route planning capabilities, so it required the company’s engineers to pre-map its driving route for the filming of the promotional video.

Ehlerswami’s testimony was used as evidence in a lawsuit against Tesla following the 2018 fatal crash of former Apple engineer Walter Huang. The testimony, which has not been publicly reported before, is the first time a Tesla employee has confirmed and detailed how the video was made.

In his testimony, Ellerswami said that at Musk’s request, the Tesla Autopilot team documented “the capabilities of the system and demonstrated them. To create the video, Tesla used 3D maps on a predetermined route. In addition, a human driver intervened during the demonstration. While trying to demonstrate that the Model X can park itself without a driver, a test car crashed into a Tesla parking lot fence.

Elleswami explained, “The video was not made to accurately depict the features available to consumers in 2016, but rather to depict what might be built into the system.”

When Tesla released the video, Musk tweeted, “Tesla’s vehicles can drive themselves on city streets, highways, completely without human driver intervention, and then find parking spaces automatically.”

The New York Times had reported in 2021, citing anonymous sources, that Tesla engineers had produced a 2016 demo video to promote Autopilot, but did not reveal that the route had been mapped ahead of time or that the test vehicle had been involved in a crash. When asked if the 2016 video demonstrated the performance of Autopilot available on production cars at the time, Ellerswami also answered in the negative.

Andrew McDevitt, an attorney representing Walter Huang’s wife, challenged Ellerswami’s testimony in July, saying that “a video without any disclaimer or explanation is clearly misleading.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) concluded in 2020 that Walter Huang’s fatal crash may have been caused by a combination of distraction and limitations in the Autopilot feature. The agency said Tesla’s “ineffective monitoring of the driver’s attention” contributed to the crash.

Ellerswami said the driver could “fool the monitoring system” into believing their attention was on the steering wheel. But he said he doesn’t think Autopilot is a safety issue if the driver really stays focused.

Neither Ellerswami, Musk nor Tesla returned requests for comment. However, the company has warned drivers that they must keep their hands on the wheel and maintain control of the vehicle when using Autopilot. On the company’s website, Tesla emphasized that its technology is designed to help vehicles steer, brake, accelerate and change lanes automatically, but that it “does not make the vehicle self-driving.

The testimony comes at a time when Tesla is facing multiple lawsuits and regulatory scrutiny for misrepresenting its driver assistance system. In 2021, the U.S. Department of Justice reportedly began a criminal investigation into Tesla’s claims that its vehicles could drive themselves, following a number of crashes involving Autopilot.

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