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Tesla staged 2016 self-driving demo, says senior Autopilot engineer

A crashed sedan has been torn in half.
Enlarge / Walter Huang’s Model X in a tow yard days after his fatal crash.

Tesla’s widely viewed 2016 Autopilot demonstration video showing the system stopping for red lights and moving off again when the light changed to green was faked, according to the director of Autopilot software, Ashok Elluswamy. Elluswamy made the statement under oath during a deposition for a lawsuit brought against Tesla following the fatal crash of Apple engineer Walter Huang in 2018.

The video, posted in October 2016 and still available on Tesla’s website, begins with the caption: “The person in the driver’s seat is only there for legal reasons. He is not doing anything. The car is driving itself.” We then see a Tesla Model X leave a garage, and a driver enters the car as The Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black” begins to play.

The heavily edited video then shows the Model X driving around, stopping for road junctions and red lights. All the while, the human in the driver’s seat has his hands near but not on the steering wheel. Upon reaching a Tesla facility, the human leaves the Model X, which goes off to park itself, avoiding running over a pedestrian in the process.

At the time, Tesla CEO Elon Musk publicized the video via his Twitter account, telling the world that “Tesla drives itself (no human input at all) thru urban streets to highway to streets, then finds a parking spot.” Musk went on to add that “8 cameras, 12 ultrasonars and radar all flush mounted and body color. Beauty remains.”

Since then, Tesla has removed both radar and ultrasonic sensors from its cars, presumably to reduce the cost of materials to the automaker. The loss of forward-looking radar sensors and a large number of complaints about phantom braking have led the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration to open an investigation, one of several open NHTSA investigations into Tesla’s various driver assists and their propensity to crash into things.

But the Model X in the video was preprogrammed to drive from Menlo Park to Palo Alto, according to Elluswamy, who was a senior software engineer in 2019 before being promoted to head all Autopilot software development in 2019.

“The intent of the video was not to accurately portray what was available for customers in 2016. It was to portray what was possible to build into the system,” Elluswamy said in his testimony, according to Reuters. 3D maps were used to pre-program the route, including where to stop, and during the self-parking demo a Tesla crashed into a fence, Elluswamy said.

The fatal crash occurred on Highway 101 in Mountain View, California, in March 2018 when Huang’s Model X, operating under Autopilot, swerved into a highway crash attenuator at more than 70 mph. Tesla blamed Huang for the crash, claiming he was not paying attention. But according to the National Transportation Safety Board, Huang had repeatedly complained to friends and family about his car’s propensity to swerve at that particular crash barrier in the past. The National Transportation Safety Board had harsh words for Tesla, CalTrans, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, all of which shared blame for the death, it said in 2020.

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