Data leaked appears to show Tesla Autopilot malfunctions
Data leaked to the German Handelsblatt suggests that Tesla has bigger technical problems with its Autopilot driver assistance system than previously thought. Insiders leaked 100 gigabytes of data said to originate from Tesla’s IT system and the issue appear to go way beyond “phantom braking”.
Informants leaked over 23,000 files to the German paper, where a team of 13 journalists worked on summarising the complaints and unearthing the depth and ramifications of the leak. Handelsblatt has had the authenticity of the leaked data confirmed by the Fraunhofer Institute for Secure Information Technology.
Tesla has tried to prohibit publication with a lawyer’s letter, saying the company had reason to believe that a “disgruntled former employee” had “misused his access as a service technician” to smuggle information out of the company before leaving that the lawyer says violates “his signed non-disclosure agreement, Tesla’s data management policies and practices, and EU and German law”.
Handelsblatt posed 65 questions to Tesla about the data, but other than a threatening lawyer’s letter, the American electric carmaker declined to respond.
Among other things, the leaks contain more than 2,400 complaints about self-acceleration and more than 1,500 problems with braking functions, including 139 cases of unintended emergency braking and 383 reported “phantom braking” due to false collision warnings. The number of crashes is more than 1,000. The oldest complaints date from 2015, the most recent from March 2022. During this period, Tesla delivered around 2.6 million vehicles using Autopilot software.
Although most of the entries come from US customers, complaints are also said to have been recorded from Europe and Asia. Since the data apparently contains not only the complaint itself but also the contact details of the customers, Handelsblatt contacted some customers and had information confirmed. Still to come are more details about “a presumed secret report with problems of the cybertruck” that Handelsblatt has received but has yet to reveal in more detail.
In June 2022, CEO Elon Musk stated that developing a functioning Autopilot would determine “whether Tesla is worth a lot of money or virtually zero.” Currently, Autopilot functions are purely a driving assistance system. In the US and Europe, cutomers are legally obliged to keep their hands on the wheel and eyes on the road at all times. This is also clearly stated in Tesla manuals that come with all vehicles. The controversy comes not only from reports of freakish happenings with many of the Autopilot functions but also from the fact that Tesla markets the most expensive version of Autopilot as “Full Self-Driving”. Critics are therefore accusing Tesla and its CEO of misleading customers.
In analysing the leaked data, Handlesblatt journalists point out that the founder of Tesla, Martin Eberhard, has said he considers it “dangerous” to let an autonomous vehicle on the road “before it is one hundred per cent safe and reliable.” Eberhard founded Tesla in 2003 and was later dismissed by Musk, who initially joined as an investor.
Other prominent criticism comes from Steve Wozniak of Apple fame, who told CNN in May this year that Musk had tried to convince him to buy a Telsa early on with the promise that the vehicle could drive itself across the country by the end of 2016. Wozniak said that this was not even remotely realistic and that customers have to fear that Autopilot will “try and kill them at every opportunity.”
This level of disgruntlement and outrage is reflected in the now-leaked files that have resulted in numerous investigations, court cases and even the subject of a Superbowl ad by Californian billionaire Dan O’Dowd with a clip that showed how allegedly self-driving Teslas disregard traffic rules, ram a pram and run over a child-sized doll in a zebra crossing with the message that “Tesla’s Full Self Driving endangers the public”.
Particularly awkward for the US carmaker is the Handelsblatt revelation that an engineer listed problem areas for his colleagues in 2018 on the occasion of a fault analysis. The most sensitive point included unintended braking and acceleration of the vehicles. The engineer noted in his presentation that this impairs “the safe operation of the vehicle”, next to which is a note: “Dangerous – without warning direct risk to customer safety.”
Handelsblatt reports that the federal Department of Justice is investigating whether misleading statements were made by Tesla or company executives about Autopilot’s capabilities. This is not part of the leaks, Tesla confirmed these investigations in January. The SEC is also investigating whether Tesla’s CEO made statements that suggested something that was not true. The NHTSA says it has been investigating the autopilot systems in 830,000 Teslas since June.
Tesla also has to answer questions in China, where, earlier this month, the market regulation authority demanded that the company update the software of about 1.1 million vehicles due to a possible safety risk. This concerns around 97 per cent of all vehicles Tesla has sold in China.
In its 10-page exposé, with numerous attachments and further links, Handelsblatt editorial team goes into details of many of the incidents and accidents that are connected to the “autopilot system”. The Handelsblatt states in the article that it is not aware of any case in which Tesla admitted to faults in its Autopilot functions.
handelsblatt.com (in German)