Fatal Tesla Crash Lawsuit Testimony: 2016 Autopilot Demo Video Was “faked”

By B.N. Frank

Experts and research have warned for years that all autonomous aka self-driving software applications are problematic (see 1, 2, 3, 4) – not just the ones in Tesla vehicles.  There have been investigations.  In fact, just last month, U.S. regulators started a new investigation on self-driving taxis.  Nevertheless, despite warnings and investigations, some drivers have continued to use self-driving features and then blamed their accidents on them.  For example, also last month, a Tesla driver blamed his accident on self-driving software.  Of course, he may be right.

From Ars Technica:

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

The claim was made in a lawsuit over Walter Huang’s fatal Model X crash in 2018.

Jonathan M. Gitlin

Walter Huang’s Model X in a tow yard days after his fatal crash. NTSB

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 2016 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.

Jonathan received his BSc in Pharmacology from King’s College London, and his PhD in Pharmacology from Imperial College London, and followed up with postdoctoral work at The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, CA, and the University of Kentucky in Lexington, KY, where he also taught International Science and Technology Policy at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Relations. It was during his postdoc years that he started writing for Ars Technica, covering the sciences with the occasion foray into racing games.

Activist Post reports regularly about autonomous vehicles (AVs) and other unsafe technologies.  For more information, visit our archives.

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