How bad is Tesla’s Autopilot safety problem? According to thousands alleged Tesla customers in the US and around the world are pretty bad.
A massive data dump based on whistleblower leaks of internal Tesla documents shows that problems with Tesla’s automated driving technology may be more common than media reports and regulators allow, according to German newspaper Handelsblatt, which published an article about it Thursday.
The leaked files add to disturbing tales that have appeared in the media and on social media over the years about Tesla’s Autopilot and experimental technology that it describes as fully self-driving. They highlight Tesla’s attempts to keep safety complaints private, and what appears to be a strategy to limit customer communications that could end in lawsuits.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk did not respond to a request from The Times for comment.
Here are four of the article’s biggest conclusions about the leak.
1. The files include thousands of alleged customer complaints and descriptions of malfunctions.
In an article titled “Autopilot Almost Killed Me,” Handelsblatt said it had received 100 gigabytes of data and 23,000 files including 3,000 entries about customer safety concerns and descriptions of more than 1,000 incidents. The article said the complaints cover Tesla manufactured from 2015 to March 2022. The files contain more than 2,400 complaints about sudden acceleration and more than 1,500 complaints about braking problems, including unintended emergency braking and so-called “phantom stops,” where The car brakes suddenly for no apparent reason, according to the article.
The article said customers’ phone numbers were included in the files. Handelsblatt said she has contacted dozens of them and they have confirmed that the complaints are legitimate. A Michigan man reported that his Tesla “was suddenly hit hard, as hard as you can imagine. I pushed into the seatbelt and the car almost came to a stop. Then another car hit me from behind.”
In addition to checking complaints with customers, Handelsblatt showed the files to the Fraunhofer Institute for Secure Information Technology, which concluded that there was no reason to believe that “the data set does not come from IT systems belonging to or in Tesla’s environment.”
2. Tesla systematically avoids communicating with customers in writing.
And the files include, according to Handelsblatt, “exact instructions” for communicating with customers. Employees are told that unless attorneys are involved, they should not send written copies of their reviews, but must pass them “orally to the client.”
The guidelines say, according to the article, “Do not copy and paste the report below into an email or text message or leave it in a customer voicemail.”
“They didn’t send emails, everything was always word of mouth,” the article quoted a California doctor, who said that a Tesla car accelerated on its own in the fall of 2021 and crashed into two concrete piles.
Some customers have received written responses, including one who complained about phantom braking and was told that the Autopilot system was behaving “quite normally” and that they should re-read the manual, according to the article.
Tesla has a long history of trying to cover up customer complaints about safety issues. Since 2016, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has had to announce that customers are allowed to report safety issues after reports that Tesla was requiring customers to sign non-disclosure agreements to qualify for warranty repairs on Model S suspension systems.
3. Tesla threatened legal action over the leak.
Handelsblatt says that when confronted about the leak and safety concerns, Tesla’s lawyers demanded that the news organization send a copy of the data to the company, delete all other copies, and that it plans legal action to “steal confidential and personal information.” data.”
4. This is data that could force regulators to step things up.
The alleged filings likely play a role in existing wrongful death lawsuits against Tesla alleging underlying safety issues with its technology, and could prompt state and federal regulators to finally take action.
In 2021, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration dismissed similar customer complaints about unintentional acceleration and blamed it on “driver error.”
Numerous US safety regulator investigations into Tesla have been going on for years, including an investigation into an apparent propensity for Tesla cars to crash into parked fire trucks, ambulances and police cars on highways with their lights flashing.
The California Department of Motor Vehicles is investigating whether the name of Tesla’s $15,000 full self-driving option violates state law and its own regulations against marketing vehicles as autonomous when they are not. The DMV will not say why this investigation has gone on for more than two years without resolution.
In China, regulators are already taking action. Just a couple of weeks ago, Tesla had to release an urgent software update on nearly every car it sells in China to address sudden, unintended acceleration problems.
Tesla CEO Musk has been promising actual full self-driving since 2016, but he hasn’t delivered yet.
Handelsblatt’s article is available behind the paywall, with an English translation.
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