A German news outlet sifted through over 23,000 of Tesla’s internal files and found a disturbing trend of brushing off customers complaining about dangerous Autopilot glitches while covering the company’s ass.
The publication Handelsblatt got its hands on the data through an unnamed informant. Handelsblatt confirmed the data’s authenticity with Fraunhofer Institute for Secure Information Technology, which found no evidence of doctoring or fabrication in the files. Tesla attempted to stop the publication from using this data in its reporting and even threatened legal action against Handelsblatt. The publication, however, decided this was one of the extraordinary circumstances when reporting on such a data breach would be legal under European Union law.
It posted “My autopilot almost killed me”: Tesla files cast doubt on Elon Musk’s promises on Thursday. The story is both in German and behind a paywall, but the English translation is of excellent quality. Here’s a bit of the meat of it:
The Tesla files contain more than 2,400 self-acceleration complaints and more than 1,500 braking function problems, including 139 cases of unintentional emergency braking and 383 reported phantom stops resulting from false collision warnings. The number of crashes is more than 1000. A table of incidents involving driver assistance systems where customers have expressed safety concerns has more than 3000 entries.
The oldest complaints available to the Handelsblatt date from 2015, the most recent from March 2022. During this period, Tesla delivered around 2.6 million vehicles with the autopilot software. Most of the incidents took place in the US , but there are also complaints from Europe and Asia in the documents - including many from German Tesla drivers.
The Handelsblatt contacted dozens of customers from several countries. All confirmed the information from the Tesla files. In discussions, they gave insights into their experiences with the autopilot. Some disclosed their communication with the US automaker, others showed Handelsblatt reporters videos of the accident.
Customers from the U.S. and Europe told Handelsblatt Tesla wasn’t too interested in assisting with their issues, but seemed more intent on covering for the company. It turns out, this was explicit policy at Tesla:
How did the company deal with complaints? The Tesla files also provide information about this. The files show that employees have precise guidelines for communicating with customers. The top priority is obviously: offer as little attack surface as possible.
For each incident there are bullet points for the “technical review”. The employees who enter this review into the system regularly make it clear that the report is “for internal use only”. Each entry also contains a note in bold type that information, if at all, may only be passed on “VERBALLY to the customer”.
“Do not copy and paste the report below into an email, text message, or leave it in a voicemail to the customer,” it said. Vehicle data should also not be released without permission. If, despite the advice, “an involvement of a lawyer cannot be prevented”, this must be recorded.
Customers that Handelsblatt spoke to have the impression that Tesla employees avoid written communication. “They never sent emails, everything was always verbal,” says the doctor from California, whose Tesla said it accelerated on its own in the fall of 2021 and crashed into two concrete pillars.
Throughout the report, there is a refrain familiar to anyone who covers Tesla: “Tesla did not answer questions about the allegations from customers.” Some told Handelsblatt they either sold their Teslas or tried to give them back to the company, saying they couldn’t in good conscience let anyone else drive the car.
Elon Musk and Tesla had a hell of a 2022, and this year is shaping up to be no different. It was revealed a 2016 video of a self-driving Tesla was likely a hoax made with Musk’s approval and participation. Multiple lawsuits from everyone from shareholders to surviving family members of crash victims, are about to have their day in court. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Department of Justice are closing in.
The report goes into breathtaking detail of just about every hurdle Tesla is facing right now, and you can read the whole report in German and English here.