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Tesla Follies This Week: Faked FSD Video, Worker Gripes In Germany, Class Acton Suit Begins

It isn’t easy being rich. You become a target of all sorts of people who just want to bleed you dry with silly lawsuits and spurious complaints. Take Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla. This week he is up to his eyeballs in lawsuits and facing growing discontent among workers at the new Tesla gigafactory in Germany.

The Tesla Model X That Couldn’t

In 2018, Walter Huang was killed in a highway accident near San Francisco. The National Transportation Safety Board concluded in 2020 that Huang’s fatal crash was probably caused by his distraction and the limitations of Autopilot. It said Tesla’s “ineffective monitoring of driver engagement” had contributed to the crash.

Tesla has long featured a video on its website that purports to show a Model X driving itself from a house in Menlo Park to Tesla’s then headquarters in Palo Alto. At the beginning, there is a caption that says, “The person in the driver’s seat is only there for legal reasons. He is not doing anything. The car is driving itself.” Despite the fact that the company warns people that they must keep their hands on the steering wheel, the driver in the video barely touched the wheel during the journey.

Last summer, Ashok Elluswamy, director of Autopilot software at Tesla, was deposed by Andrew McDevitt, the lawyer who represents Huang’s widow. The engineer testified the Model X was not driving itself with the Full Self Driving software developed by Tesla. Elluswamy said Tesla’s Autopilot team set out to engineer and record a “demonstration of the system’s capabilities” at the request of Musk, according to a report by The Guardian.

To create the video, the Tesla used 3D mapping on a predetermined route, he testified. Drivers intervened to take control in test runs. When trying to show the Model X could park itself with no driver, a test car crashed into a fence in Tesla’s parking lot. “The intent of the video was not to accurately portray what was available for customers in 2016. It was to portray what was possible to build into the system,” Elluswamy said, according to a transcript of his testimony seen by Reuters. But When Tesla released the video, Musk tweeted, “Tesla drives itself (no human input at all) thru urban streets to highway to streets, then finds a parking spot.” When asked if the 2016 video showed the performance of the Tesla Autopilot system available in a production car at the time, Elluswamy said: “It does not.”

The lawsuit will attempt to show that Walter Huang relied on that video and that his reliance was a proximate cause of his death. If the court agrees, that could be bad news for Tesla, which is also facing a criminal investigation by NHTSA because of several crashes that have injured or killed people while FSD might have been enabled. There are suggestions that the system is programmed to shut itself off 1 second before a serious crash so the company can say with a straight face that FSD was not active at the time a collision took place.

Unhappy Tesla Workers In Germany

Elon Musk has no use for unions, but labor unions in Germany are some of the strongest in the world. One of the most powerful is IG Metall, which was reportedly instrumental in ousting Herbert Diess as the CEO of Volkswagen Group last year. According to Reuters, IG Metall has been getting lots of complaints from workers who are not “hard core,” as Elon likes to say. They do not enjoy working 100-hour weeks, or staying on after their shift is over to work into the wee hours of the morning. Ingrates!

Workers were also increasingly fearful about discussing their working conditions openly because of nondisclosure agreements they were told to sign along with their work contracts, IG Metall says. A new role advertised on Tesla’s career website calls for a “Security Intelligence Investigator,” who will partner with legal and human resources departments to carry out “collection of on-the-ground information both within and beyond Tesla walls in order to protect the company from threats,” Reuters says.

“Workers started at Tesla with great enthusiasm for the project. Over time we are observing that this enthusiasm is withering,” Irene Schulz of IG Metall Berlin-Brandenburg-Sachsen said in a statement. “Tesla is not doing enough to improve working conditions and is leaving too little time for leisure, family and recovery.”

Tesla China has also asked some staff to sign non-disclosure agreements, according to two sources with knowledge of the matter. Reuters found several people on LinkedIn with the title of “Security Intelligence Investigator” working for Tesla in Austin, San Francisco, and Shanghai.

German business newspaper Handelsblatt reported on Monday that local politicians from the centre-left SPD to the centre-right CDU expressed concern about the allegations, calling for inquiries both by Tesla and the local government. “The state government of Brandenburg must enforce occupational safety through close controls at Tesla,” said Christian Baeumler of the Christian Democrats.

The Tweet Heard Around The World

Also this week, a trial has begun in a class action lawsuit brought by disgruntled Tesla shareholders who claim they lost money in 2018 because of Musk’s infamous “420 tweet” in August of 2018 in which Musk claimed he had lined up the financing to take Tesla private in a $72 billion buyout as long as shareholders approved. Musk then amplified that tweet with a follow-up statement that made a deal seem imminent, CBS News reports.

The trial began Tuesday in the lawsuit that was brought on behalf of investors who owned Tesla stock for a 10-day period in August 2018. Musk also was sanctioned by the SEC because of that tweet. The trial’s outcome may hinge on the jury’s interpretation of Musk’s motive for tweets that U.S. District Judge Edward Chen has already decided were a falsehood.

Chen dealt Musk another setback on Friday, when he rejected Musk’s bid to transfer the trial to a federal court in Texas, where Tesla moved its headquarters in 2021. Musk had argued that negative coverage of his Twitter purchase has poisoned the jury pool in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The trial is likely to provide insights into Musk’s management style, since the witness list includes some of Tesla’s current and former top executives and board members, including Larry Ellison, Oracle co-founder, as well as James Murdoch, the son of media mogul Rupert Murdoch. The drama also may shed light on Musk’s relationship with his brother, Kimbal, who is also on the list of potential witnesses who may be called during the trial, which is scheduled to continue through February 1.

The Takeaway

The factor that unites all these stories is the arrogance of Elon Musk. He can’t comprehend why people get upset when they learn they are unwitting (and unpaid) participants in one of the largest technology beta tests in history — Full Self Driving — or why they want to have a job and a life, or why they get become annoyed when his tweets send the price of the company stock into wild gyrations that cost them money. Musk thinks he can do no wrong and the normal rules of society don’t apply to him. Sometime in the next few weeks he may find that the rest of the world does not share his dystopian views. But will he learn anything from the experience? That is highly doubtful.

 
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Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. 3000 years ago, Socrates said, "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." Perhaps it's time we listened?

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