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Elon Musk’s enthusiastic public claims about Tesla’s self-driving technology have been privately contradicted by the car company’s own employees, who told authorities that the billionaire’s comments do not “match engineering reality”.
Documents from California’s Department of Motor Vehicles appear to show that a Tesla director told the regulator that the company was some way away from being fully autonomous.
Mr Musk has repeatedly stated that Tesla is approaching the point where its vehicles can drive themselves. Since 2016, the company has sold cars that it says will be capable of being fully autonomous, and has allowed users to pay thousands of dollars up front for access to the technology when it is available.
However, the company has repeatedly missed its chief executive’s deadlines. Mr Musk once said that a Tesla will be able to drive itself across the United States by the end of 2017 - a feat it is yet to publicly achieve - and said in 2019 that the company would launch a robotaxi service in 2020 that would allow owners to rent out their self-driving cars as taxis.
He claimed late last year that the company would achieve “level 5” autonomy, the point at which a car needs no human intervention, by the end of 2021.
The DMV documents, obtained under freedom of information laws by the investigative website Plainsite, detail a call between the regulator’s staff and Tesla engineers in March after officials asked for clarification on Mr Musk’s latest claim.
A memo about the call states that “Elon’s tweet does not match engineering reality per CJ”, referring to CJ Moore, Tesla’s director of Autopilot. It is unclear what tweet Mr Moore was referring to, although Mr Musk had made similar claims at an awards show in December, and repeated them in an investor call in January.
The Tesla director also stated that Tesla was currently at “level 2” autonomy, a limited capability that involves a car being able to assist driving by controlling steering and speed.
The company has made an early version of its self driving system available to a group of drivers, although videos from early testers posted on YouTube have shown the system making errors and requiring human intervention. Tesla is also under scrutiny over its Autopilot software, the more limited driver assistance system designed to steer, brake and accelerate on motorways.
US regulators are investigating more than 20 crashes in which Autopilot was involved. The company itself has claimed that Autopilot results in far fewer crashes per mile than when human drivers are in control of a vehicle. Tesla is gradually expanding access to its full-self driving software.
Mr Musk said in March that it had 2,000 car owners in the programme, and had revoked access for drivers who did not pay attention to the road.
Unlike most companies developing self-driving cars, which are gradually testing their vehicles in particular areas, Tesla is training its system on camera feeds from its drivers, hoping that this will create a more complete system when it is available.
The company currently charges $10,000, or £6,800 in the UK, for “full self driving” capability when purchasing a car. Tesla did not respond to a request for comment.