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Tesla Engineer Tells Court That Autopilot Video With Car Driving Itself Was Staged

On December 10, 2021, we told our readers about a damning accusation against Tesla. The New York Times talked to 19 former employees and also people who still worked for the EV maker at the time. They said the video that Tesla promoted to demonstrate a Model X drove itself was staged. Fast forward to January 17, 2023, and now we have a formal statement that this was really the case.
Video Tesla used to promote Autopilot as autonomous tech was staged, accord to the Autopilot director 14 photos
Photo: Tesla/edited by autoevolution
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Ashok Elluswamy made the confirmation. The executive has worked as the director of the Autopilot program since May 2019 and started at the company as a software engineer for the advanced driver assistance system (ADAS) in January 2014. When the video was released in 2016, he was already a veteran at the company.

Elluswamy was deposed in the lawsuit Wei “Walter” Huang’s wife filed against Tesla. 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.

Autonomous vehicle safety experts keep repeating that Tesla should make driver monitoring more effective. Recently, Elon Musk promised he would remove one of these safeguards from Full Self-Driving (FSD). The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) started a probe shortly after that.

The Autopilot director declared under oath that the video did not represent what Autopilot could offer in production vehicles at the time. Elon Musk asked the Autopilot team to engineer and record a “demonstration of the system’s capabilities.” In the end, the video brought this disclaimer: “The person in the driver’s seat is only there for legal reasons. He is not doing anything. The car is driving itself.” It is still online. According to Reuters, Elon Musk also tweeted this: “Tesla drives itself (no human input at all) thru urban streets to highway to streets, then finds a parking spot.”

According to Elluswamy, that is also not true. Drivers intervened to control the car during the shooting, and the Model X used in the video crashed when it was trying to park on its own. The Autopilot director also confirmed that the engineers mapped the way before the video was shot – something the NYT story had already revealed.

Autopilot is theoretically designed to work anywhere you drive without previous mapping. In fact, Elluswamy is not even aware of what defines an Operational Design Domain (ODD). As Mahmood Hikmet clarified in very educational videos back in September 2021, that’s where an autonomous vehicle is designed to work. The engineer was shocked that Elluswamy did not know what that meant.

Although the Autopilot director could not state anything other than the truth under oath – perjury is a serious crime – he tried to defend the technology he was trying to develop. He told the jury he did not see any “safety issue with Autopilot if drivers were paying attention.” Hikmet read his deposition and discovered that he also did not know perception-reaction time – the very thing that will allow a driver to recover control before he crashes. Huang’s wife's attorney wants to prove that this is what he lacked to escape alive.

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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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