Elon Musk Dictated Disclaimer in the 2016 Autopilot Video That Was Staged

The staged 2016 Autopilot video does not cease to generate trouble for Tesla. After the Autopilot program director confirmed it did not reflect the reality of the software at the time – despite its disclaimer – Bloomberg discovered even more damning things about it. Thanks to internal emails, they know Elon Musk guided the video production and even dictated the debunked video introduction.
According to Bloomberg, Elon Musk was the one who dictated the controversial disclaimer on staged 2016 Autopilot video 16 photos
Photo: Tesla/edited by autoevolution
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If you are not aware of the story, Tesla published a video in 2016 that shows a Model X driving from a house in Menlo Park to Tesla’s headquarters in Palo Auto, where it self-parked. The vehicle apparently does everything independently, with no visible interventions from the engineer behind the steering wheel. So much so that it brings a controversial disclaimer: “The person in the driver’s seat is only there for legal reasons. He is not doing anything. The car is driving itself.” That suggests Autopilot is a Level 4 autonomous system, something that no automaker currently offers – Tesla included.

It is actually a bit worse than that. If Autopilot were meant to be a Level 4 feature, Tesla would need a special authorization to test it on public roads. These tests could only be carried out by engineers rather than the general public. Tesla told authorities it was a Level 2 advanced driver assistance system (ADAS), which allowed regular customers to use it. But there was a catch: it was labeled as beta, meaning that anyone using it was doing so at their own risk. Full Self-Driving follows the same strategy.

In 2021, The New York Times revealed that the 2016 video was staged. The newspaper talked to 19 people, some still working for Tesla at the time and former employees. They said that the EV maker mapped the route, had interventions from the engineer on the driver’s seat and crashed when trying to park. That’s quite a distance from what the video shows and what the disclaimer suggests.

Bloomberg reported that Musk first sent an email to the Autopilot team after 2 AM (California time) on October 11, 2016, to stress they needed a demonstration drive to promote the system. A week later, on October 19, 2016, Musk held a press conference to say all Tesla vehicles made from that day on would have all the hardware the cars would need to be fully autonomous.

Musk did that again on April 22, 2019, at Tesla Autonomy Day, when he also said all Teslas made from that day on would have a computer called HW 3.0 instead of the previous one, HW 2.5. Multiple customers kept receiving cars with HW 2.5 after that. Currently, there are rumors about HW 4.0, the computer that will finally make Tesla vehicles autonomous – again.

Back to the email – titled “The Absolute Priority” – Musk told his engineers they could “hardcore some of it” because they would update Autopilot anyway. The explanation emerges a little later. According to Bloomberg, Musk wrote: “I will be telling the world that this is what the car *will* be able to do, not that it can do this upon receipt.” He also said he had canceled his obligations the following weekend to work on the demo with the Autopilot team. October 11, 2016, was a Tuesday, and Musk said he would help on Saturday (October 15) and Sunday (October 16).

On October 20, Elon Musk replied to a message with the fourth version of the video – which was published on the same day. He replied that it had too many jump cuts and had to “feel like one continuous take.” He also said it should start with a black screen and the controversial disclaimer we already presented. Contradicting what he told the Autopilot team on October 11, he dictated that the car was “driving itself.” He tweeted the video on that day after the changes he demanded were included.

This confirms that Musk was directly involved in the video that is now being used in courts to accuse Tesla of deceiving its customers. The wife of Wei “Walter” Huang blames that for her husband’s death on March 23, 2018. Huang crashed his Model X on Navigate on Autopilot into a traffic barrier on a California highway and died at the hospital. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigated the crash and said a mix of distraction and Autopilot limitations caused Huang’s fatal incident. The NTSB said Tesla’s “ineffective monitoring of driver engagement” was relevant to what happened.

Tesla is also being accused of fraud with Full Self-Driving and Autopilot. Briggs Matsko sued the EV maker in a federal court in San Francisco, arguing that the company and Musk have been pledging autonomous cars for Tesla customers since 2016. Not by coincidence, the video dates from that year. Matsko’s attorneys claim that the company either said the pieces of software were fully functional or “just around the corner” with the purpose of driving up its stock price, trying to boost sales, attract investments, and avoid bankruptcy.

The EV maker tried to dismiss the lawsuit arguing that delays are a failure, not a fraud. Editing a video to make it look like that Model X drove itself with no interventions will sound very bad to any judge or jury. On top of that, the email messages show Musk promised to use the video as a demonstration of what Autopilot could eventually do, not as what it did. If that were really the case, the footage would have interventions and a crash. Not the demo Musk needed to promote the software. Matsko lawyers will certainly request the email messages Bloomberg obtained – if they have not already done so.

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About the author: Gustavo Henrique Ruffo
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Motoring writer since 1998, Gustavo wants to write relevant stories about cars and their shift to a sustainable future.
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