Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s public statements about the state of his automaker’s Autopilot assistive driving technology overestimate the system’s capabilities, according to documents released by the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).
Legal non-profit PlainSite obtained the DMV documents via the California Public Records Act and they include a summary, written by Miguel Acosta, chief of the DMV’s Autonomous Vehicles Branch, of a March 9, 2021 meeting between DMV officials and Tesla personnel.
Acosta wrote that “DMV asked CJ [CJ Moore, director of Autopilot software at Tesla] to address, from an engineering perspective, Elon’s messaging about L5 capability by the end of the year.”
This refers to a Twitter exchange at the beginning of the year. On December 31, 2020, Comma AI’s Twitter account said to Musk, “We hear you are extremely confident that you’ll have level five [full automation] next year…” and invited him to wager on that.
On January 1, 2021, Musk responded, “Tesla Full Self-Driving will work at a safety level well above that of the average driver this year, of that I am confident. Can’t speak for regulators though.”
But as Acosta recounts, Tesla engineers see things differently. “Elon’s tweet does not match engineering reality per CJ,” wrote Acosta.
An effort was made to redact this particular passage but it wasn’t very effective – selecting the unusually large area of whitespace then copying and pasting the result into a text editor reveals the white-on-white text.
Aaron Greenspan, founder of PlainSite, told The Register in an email that the DMV messed up. “The DMV attempted to redact that text and clearly failed,” he said. “They essentially admit as much regarding selective disclosure in the cover letter posted at the beginning of the PDF on our site. Whether the slip-up was inadvertent or intentional I don’t know.”
The DMV did not respond to a request to explain what happened. The remainder of Acosta’s observations are visible in the posted file.
“Tesla is at Level 2 currently. The ratio of driver interaction would need to be in the magnitude of 1 or 2 million miles per driver interaction to move into higher levels of automation. Tesla indicated that Elon is extrapolating on the rates of improvement when speaking about L5 capabilities. Tesla couldn’t say if the rate of improvement would make it to L5 by end of calendar year.”
The DMV’s concern is that Tesla provides clear communication to the public about the capabilities of its vehicles. “As Tesla is aware, the public’s misunderstanding about the limits of the technology and its misuse can have tragic consequences,” said Acosta in an April 21 letter to Eric Williams, associate general counsel at Tesla.
The May 7, 2016 fatal crash of Tesla with a trailer truck near Williston, Florida represents an example of the potential consequences of misunderstanding the limits of the company’s self-driving technology. The US National Transportation Safety Board in its report [PDF] on the incident said the probable cause of the crash “was the truck driver’s failure to yield the right of way to the car, combined with the car driver’s inattention due to over-reliance on vehicle automation…”
The fatal March 23, 2018, crash of a Tesla Model X in Mountain View, California has also been attributed to “the Tesla ‘Autopilot’ system’s limitations, the driver’s over-reliance on the ‘Autopilot’ and the driver’s distraction.”
Tesla did not respond to a request for comment but the company claims that its vehicles “are engineered to be the safest cars in the world.”
Greenspan disagrees. “I think there is significant evidence suggesting that Tesla Autopilot is dangerous to the public as designed and advertised,” he said. “Future versions may be safer as the result of design and marketing changes and better testing.”
Greenspan in the past has been a short seller of Tesla stock and last year sued Elon Musk, Tesla, and others [PDF] for defamation, harassment, copyright infringement, DMCA violations, and securities violations.
Asked whether his legal challenge of Musk has any bearing on his concerns about Tesla’s Autopilot, he responded that all journalism has bias.
“That being said, at the time I published this response from the DMV I did not have a short position on Tesla,” said Greenspan. “I have pursued the truth about Elon Musk and other billionaires/ultra-wealthy individuals at various points both when I have had a respective short position and when I have had no position at all.”
“I’ve also reported on companies in which I or my family have held long positions at times. I can’t predict in advance whether a document will confirm or reject my investment hypothesis, or if it will end up being relevant to anyone at all, but in the end what matters is that the documents speak for themselves, not what I think or what I’m invested in. And both long and short-sellers have cited PlainSite documents for this very reason.” ®