Tesla vehicles record a truly incredible amount of data. So much so, in fact, that the cars’ own hardware has had trouble keeping up with the amount of information. Tesla cars have historically been stingy with their data, allowing access to limited amounts of emergency information, but a research team in the Netherlands has figured out how to pull nearly everything straight from a car — and publicly released the tools to do so.
The curiosity around Tesla data began in the Netherlands in 2016, when a Model S crashed in the country in a single-vehicle accident. The company’s tools for retrieving emergency data hadn’t yet been released, so Dutch officials could do nothing but believe Tesla when it claimed that Autopilot wasn’t in use before the collision.
Even with the introduction of Tesla’s Emergency Data Recorder function, log files still needed to be sent back to the company for interpretation. They’re encoded in a proprietary format that can’t exactly be read in Microsoft Word, and only Tesla had the tools to convert them into something that made sense to humans. Now, thanks to the work of the Netherlands Forensic Institute, those tools are freely available online.
Since Tesla cars run a Debian-based operating system, navigating through their file systems is somewhat trivial to anyone who’s spent a weekend messing with virtual Linux machines (or watching Mr. Robot). Actually accessing the car’s memory, however, is considerably harder: all cases require at least partially disassembling the dashboard, and some even require disassembly of the car’s media control unit.
Once that’s done, however, the data trove is incredible. Depending on usage, Tesla cars can store months of recorded information from myriad sensors — steering angle, acceleration, Autopilot use, and more. While not all data has been fully interpreted, the tools released by the Netherlands Forensic Institute cover the majority of information recorded on the Model 3, Y, S, and X.
For investigators, this kind of information access is invaluable. Raw data, unfiltered through the company, can provide a clearer picture of how their vehicles operate — particularly in the case of a collision.
Of course, any release of data from someone’s personal device comes with the risk of revealing personally identifying information. No GPS data appears to be available in the logs, likely for that exact reason, but the Netherlands Forensic Institute states that it’s theoretically possible to roughly reconstruct a vehicle’s location history using other information.
While privacy risks exist, they’re relatively small in comparison to the benefits to be gleaned from making this data readily available. If someone is disassembling your Tesla in your driveway, you have bigger privacy concerns. The benefits, however, are incredible. Open-sourcing of data, freedom of information, is inherently good. By making Tesla data accessible to owners, first responders, and regulators, The Netherlands Forensic Institute has begun to finally demystify the way these cars operate — and, in the event of an accident, who’s really operating them.