Times journalists and some critics say such bullish talk has confused consumers, leading them to think that Tesla's cars can be trusted to drive themselves. The film notes that Tesla used hype around its Autopilot system as a selling point to get consumers to buy its cars.
But Tesla insists drivers should keep hands on the steering wheel while Autopilot is operating, just in case the system fails to recognize a road hazard. (In one telling news clip, a CNN anchor asks: if drivers still must hold the steering wheel while Autopilot is on, "what's the point?")
Crashes involving Tesla's Autopilot function explicitly illustrate the high stakes involved. One man, Josh Brown, was killed when his car didn't recognize a tractor trailer crossing in front of the vehicle.
"People were trusting the system to do things it was not designed or capable of doing," Stukes said. "The fact that ... [Brown's accident] happened was obviously tragic ... But it was going to happen."
Questions about Tesla's development process
One former employee noted Musk had updates to the autopilot sent to his personal vehicles, so staffers wound up working to address his concerns instead of looking at larger issues. Another ex-employee said cameras the cars use to detect traffic and roadways had a blind spot where a small dog or small child might not be seen.
When the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration finally released its report on the accident which claimed Brown's life, it concluded the Autopilot system wasn't at fault, because it was an Advanced Driver Assistance System requiring the driver to pay attention during operation. The report also included an observation—which the film says was based on data from Tesla—that the company's cars with the auto-steering technology crashed 40% less than those without it, allowing Tesla to spin the report as a positive finding.
The film quoted one former employee, software engineer Raven Jiang, who was unsettled by how the system worked. "Sometimes it seems like people and companies were being rewarded, not for telling the truth, but in fact, for doing a bit of the opposite," he added.