Tesla's 2016 Video May Be Eerily Similar to a Now-Famous Nikola One Truck Video

Tesla die-hard fans have mocked Nikola to exhaustion after Trevor Milton was sued on three counts of fraud. The former Nikola CEO was accused of exaggerating the capabilities of its trucks to artificially raise the value of his company’s shares. Ironically, all we hear from them after Tesla was accused of staging a 2016 video is silence despite the eerie similarities.
Tesla Video Presenting Autopilot in 2016 Would Have Been Staged, According to the NYT 14 photos
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If you are not familiar with that, The New York Times talked to 19 former and current Tesla employees involved with the Autopilot development. According to them, Tesla created a 3D map for its car to drive on its own in that video. Tesla always says that using maps would be very limiting to autonomous vehicles, as well as geofencing (allowing them to work just in a known and mapped environment). This is the reason for the company to avoid that.

That exposes the first contradiction that the NYT article about that 2016 video raises. If Autopilot does not need maps, why did Tesla use one in that situation? The second big problem with that footage is that it starts with a Tesla disclaimer. According to the company, “the person in the driver’s seat is only there for legal reasons. He is not doing anything. The car is driving itself.”

According to the Tesla employees interviewed by the NYT, the Model X used in that video hit a “roadside barrier on Tesla property” and had to be repaired for that crash. In other words, and although the video states that the car drove itself, it would not have done so better than a human would, as Tesla fans often claim. That part of the video would have been edited to present a flawless drive that did not really happen.

It was based on promises Elon Musk made about autonomous driving and also on that video that a large number of customers bought what Tesla named as Full Self-Driving. This package would turn the company’s vehicles into robotaxis by 2020 with a simple OTA (over-the-air) update. If that were true, we would have more than one million robotaxis on the streets for over a year already.

At Tesla Autonomy Day on April 22, 2019, Musk said that Teslas would become “appreciating assets” due to that software and that prices for it would rise. Tesla customers started paying $5,000 for it in 2016. They are currently paying $10,000 for the right to use it. Ironically, most of them are not authorized to do so.

For people to be able to use FSD, they have to require access and submit to Safety Score Beta’s evaluation. This feature on the Tesla app claims to calculate if you are a safe driver and gives you a rating.

People with more than 98 points were authorized to use the beta ADAS suit. Beta means that it is not ready for production yet. These customers started testing the unfinished software on public roads. Many also shot videos that demonstrate FSD is nowhere near Musk’s promises. Some still insist it is improving despite autonomous driving specialists stating that a camera-based approach is fundamentally flawed and dangerous.

Most of the people who insist that FSD is a masterpiece or that Autopilot saves lives (despite the people who already died using that software) are Tesla investors. In other words, they need Musk’s promises about autonomous driving to come true to increase the value of their shares. Some put all their life savings on buying Tesla stock. Admitting that the 2016 video could be staged just like the Nikola video was would mortally hurt those investments.

These investors will certainly argue that what Milton did was very different. They’ll say that he promised things he could not deliver. In that sense, Musk said autonomous driving was “basically a solved problem” in 2016, a while after Joshua Brown became the first person to die using Autopilot when his Model S drove under a tractor-trailer in Florida.

Five years later, Tesla is more valuable than most other carmakers combined based on the promise that it would deliver autonomous cars. That video was part of this promise. Yes, Tesla produces thousands of EVs every year. In 2020, it manufactured a bit more than half a million cars. It has two factories and is building two more. Compare that to what its competitors deliver, and it is clear that this is no reason for it to be valued at more than $1 trillion. The perspective that it will provide something groundbreaking is what it does.

Milton was accused multiple times of being a Musk copycat for trying to become a Twitter influencer and promising bold things. In light of the NYT story about that 2016 Tesla video, it is worth asking what makes the attitudes of these two CEOs so different. Both did not deliver on their promises, although building a semi with fuel cells seems more manageable than getting 1 million robotaxis on the streets. Both made videos that are under suspicion for presenting as real something that was not. Only one of them is being sued for all that.

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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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