Tesla Scammed the World When It Faked 2016 Self-Driving Demo: Is It Criminal?

There’s this small thing that all businesses adhere to called “goodwill.” Showing goodwill by being honest about your products and what they can and can’t do is especially necessary when doing otherwise could kill someone. This week a Tesla engineer involved in the 2016 video that supposedly filmed a Model X driving completely autonomously admitted it was all faked. Under oath. Is there now a criminal liability for this?

How fake is the fake Tesla self-driving video?

Tesla’s film, in reality, was a total forgery. According to Ashok Elluswamy, the company’s Autopilot director, the route was 3D mapped with the information downloaded to the car. Those engineers inside the Model X had to take over at every turn, and the parking maneuvers actually resulted in the car crashing into a nearby fence. 

Following the release of the video to millions of his Twitter followers, CEO Elon Musk stated, “Tesla drives itself, no human input at all, through urban streets to highway to streets, then finds a parking spot.” This fake video continues to be used by Tesla today.  

Is Tesla Autopilot safer than driving?

A Tesla vehicle is submerged in a swimming pool.
A Tesla vehicle is submerged in a swimming pool. | Pasadena Fire Department

In 2021, the New York Times exposed the video as fraudulent, so those paying attention were not surprised when Elluswamy confirmed it under oath. The reason he gave testimony is that the Department of Justice is conducting a criminal investigation of Tesla. And there are numerous lawsuits in both California and Florida, where defendants are accused of manslaughter. They, in turn, are suing Tesla because the accidents happened while Autopilot was engaged. 

An 84-page class action lawsuit was filed in September 2022, over “deceptive and misleading marketing tactics and straight fraudulent actions” connected with Tesla’s Autopilot. The company is also accused of its claims since 2016 that full self-driving was “just around the corner.” It goes on to state the reason for the claims was to attract investors. 

Musk has claimed self-driving cross-country trips would be available by 2018. Then in 2019, he made yet, another claim that one million robo-taxis would be in use by the next year. Now, he says a million robo-taxis are still coming, but probably not until 2025. 

Is Tesla still saying Autopilot is self-driving?

Tesla accident
A Tesla slammed into a tree on September 7, 2016 | ROBIN VAN LONKHUIJSEN/AFP via Getty
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And while lawsuits start piling up, there are more investigations by government agencies. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the California Department of Motor Vehicles are both investigating traffic deaths attributed to Autopilot. The NHTSA alone is investigating 40 Autopilot crashes. 

Tesla says it makes clear to purchasers of its FSD Autopilot feature is not self-driving capable. But Musk’s claims counter that, and he is not only the CEO but the marketing arm of the company. Tesla has no marketing or media relations departments. He’s it. 

So the line gets blurred when Tesla cautions in one ear but makes false claims in the other. As the trial over Tesla’s and Musk’s culpability, more testimony will surely help jurors and the public come to a better conclusion. And we’ll see whether the court of public opinion matches that of a sworn jury.