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Tesla video promoting self-driving was staged, engineer testifies

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Jan 17 (Reuters) – A 2016 video that Tesla (TSLA.O) used to promote its self-driving technology was staged to show features like stopping at a red light and accelerating at a green light that the system did not have, so according to the testimony of a senior engineer.

The video, which remains archived on Tesla’s website, was released in October 2016 and promoted on Twitter by Chief Executive Elon Musk as proof that “Tesla drives itself”.

But the Model X wasn’t running alone on technology Tesla had implanted, Ashok Elluswamy, Tesla’s director of Autopilot software, said in the transcript of a July deposition taken as evidence in a lawsuit against Tesla over a fatal 2018 accident involving a ex-Apple (AAPL.O) engineer.

Elluswamy’s previously unreported testimony represents the first time a Tesla employee has confirmed and detailed how the video was produced.

The video features a tagline saying, “The person in the driver’s seat is only there for legal reasons. He’s not doing anything. The car is driving itself.

Elluswamy said Tesla’s Autopilot team decided to design and record a “demonstration of the system’s capabilities” at Musk’s request.

Elluswamy, Musk and Tesla did not respond to a request for comment. However, the company warned drivers that they should keep their hands on the steering wheel and maintain control of their vehicles while using Autopilot.

Tesla’s technology is designed to assist with steering, braking, speed and lane changes, but its features “do not make the vehicle autonomous,” the company says on its website.

To create the video, Tesla used 3D mapping on a predetermined route from a house in Menlo Park, Calif., to then-Tesla headquarters in Palo Alto, he said.

Drivers stepped in to take control in testing, he said. While trying to show that the Model X could park itself without a driver, a test car crashed into a fence in the Tesla lot, he said.

“The intent of the video was not to accurately portray what was available to customers in 2016. It was to portray what was possible to incorporate into the system,” Elluswamy said, according to a transcript of his testimony seen by Reuters.

When Tesla released the video, Musk tweeted: “Tesla drives himself (no human intervention) through urban streets to highways and then finds a spot to park.”

Tesla faces lawsuits and regulatory scrutiny over its driver assistance systems.

The US Department of Justice has launched a criminal investigation into Tesla’s claims that its electric vehicles can drive themselves in 2021, following a series of accidents, some of them fatal, involving Autopilot, Reuters reported.

The New York Times reported in 2021 that Tesla engineers created the 2016 video to promote Autopilot without disclosing that the route had been mapped in advance or that a car had crashed while trying to complete the footage, citing anonymous sources.

When asked if the 2016 video showed the performance of the Tesla Autopilot system available in a production car at the time, Elluswamy said, “It doesn’t.”

Elluswamy was overthrown in a lawsuit against Tesla over an accident in Mountain View, California, in 2018 that killed Apple engineer Walter Huang.

Andrew McDevitt, the lawyer representing Huang’s wife who questioned Elluswamy’s wife in July, told Reuters it was “obviously misleading to present that video without any disclaimer or asterisk”.

The National Transportation Safety Board concluded in 2020 that Huang’s fatal accident was likely caused by his distraction and the limitations of Autopilot. He said Tesla’s “ineffective monitoring of driver involvement” contributed to the crash.

Elluswamy said drivers can “fool the system” by making a Tesla system believe they were paying attention based on feedback from the steering wheel when they weren’t. But he said he didn’t see any safety issues with Autopilot if drivers were paying attention.

Hyunjoo Jin; reporting; Editing by Kevin Krolicki and Lisa Shumaker

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