Tesla files: data leak shows Tesla's problems with its Autopilot

Stop - Pixabay[German]The German magazine Handelsblatt received 100 gigabytes of internal "Tesla files" by whistleblowers. The leak includes emails, personal data of the Tesla staff and customer complaints including descriptions of accidents. This data from around 23,000 files could be analyzed by Handelsblatt and shows the security problem of the Tesla Auto Pilot. Authorities are now alarmed and are examining the details.


Tesla, the bogus giant of the stock market

It's crazy when you look at the stock market and media landscape with common sense to evaluate certain reports and developments for yourself. There Tesla was written up as "the killer of traditional automakers" and the US automaker reached the market capitalization of 1.2 trillion dollars in November 2021.

This meant that Tesla, as the world's largest manufacturer of electric cars, was worth more than the traditional carmakers BMW, Ford, General Motors, Honda, Mercedes, Toyota and Volkswagen combined. Anyone who still has all the cups in the cupboard had to classify this as completely gaga. Even if future developments are factored in, this valuation did not fit at all – a no-name is valued higher than the phalanx of traditional carmakers with millions of customers, hundreds of thousands of workshops and manufacturing plants, and many years of solid experience in vehicle production.

Even the above announcement that the Tesla Model Y will be the best-selling car worldwide in Q1 2023 doesn't really change much. Toyota alone sells a multiple of vehicles with the different models listed under the top 5. Just look at the numbers.

Today, Tesla is worth less than half of this 1.2 trillion US dollars – and even this valuation is still illusory in my eyes. The Handelsblatt writes that never before has a company lost so much in stock market value in such a short time. But that's no wonder, when a bubble of unrealistic valuations bursts, the prices just go down. The stupid and the greedy never die on the stock market.


Tesla and the Auto Pilot

Building self-driving vehicles is one of Tesla's stated goals. Elon Musk, the founder and largest shareholder of the carmaker, said in June 2022 that the development of a functioning Autopilot would determine "whether Tesla is worth a lot of money or has practically zero value," writes the Handelsblatt (paywall).

Handelsblatt: Tesla Files

Meanwhile, on the other hand, the story looks very grim – it seems that Musk has put his foot down and the company has not been able to fulfill its promises and stoked expectations. On the contrary, the Auto Pilot in Tesla's vehicles is being held responsible for a number of fatal accidents. Tesla admittedly denies everything and meanwhile also pretends that people are only allowed to use Auto Pilot as a "driving assistance".

In the meantime, however, the U.S. company is facing numerous court cases in the U.S. regarding its driving assistance systems. The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has also opened investigations into Auto Pilot.

Tesla and the data leak

Now the whole thing has taken on a new explosive quality via the so-called Tesla files, which were leaked to the Handelsblatt, but show a picture that seems familiar to me. The saying "On the outside, wow, on the inside" ran through my head when I came across the article Tesla-Files: Wie es zu dem riesigen Datenleck kam (paywall) in the Handelsblatt.

According to the report, whistleblowers accuse Tesla of inadequately protecting data from customers, employees and business partners. Tesla does have an official commitment to data protection, which reads really well. For example, personal information such as passport and social security numbers may only be shared by Tesla employees in a password-protected manner and with the permission of their supervisor, according to an internal company policy obtained by Handelsblatt. Access to protected data may only be granted to employees "who need to know about it".

Data protection is a top priority. However, things seem to have gone rather "shabby" internally at Tesla, as the Handelsblatt writes in its article Der Fall wird an dieser Stelle brisant, und das Handelsblatt hat einen eigenen Artikel Warum wir die Tesla-Files veröffentlichen. Research by the medium raises doubts that the internal policy is actually being implemented at Tesla.

Meanwhile, the U.S. carmaker has come under scrutiny from German and Dutch data protection authorities. "The state commissioner has received serious indications of possible data protection violations by the Tesla car company," a spokesperson for Dagmar Hartge, the state data protection commissioner in Brandenburg, confirmed to Handelsblatt. Tesla's German factory is located in the state. The data protection supervisory authority in the Netherlands has also already been informed about the case, they say. Tesla's European headquarters are located there.

Handelsblatt Editor-in-Chief Sebastian Matthes writes that Tesla's rise is fascinating. It is true that Tesla and its founder Elon Musk have changed the world of carmakers and brought electric mobility a bit forward. But it could be that the U.S. company grew too fast and, doomed to success, let things slide internally. In any case, according to Handelsblatt, the Tesla Files suggest that the company was very lax with the data of its employees.

The 100 gigabytes of data leaked to Handelsblatt by several sources comprise 23,000 files. These include 1388 PDF documents, 1015 Excel spreadsheets and 213 PowerPoint presentations – as well as numerous images, videos, audio files and e-mails. Some documents show salaries and home addresses of more than 100,000 current and former employees, according to Handelblatt. Other files presumably list private mail addresses and phone numbers of customers.

The evaluation by a twelve-person Handelsblatt team took six months, writes the medium. The evaluation produced a picture of how the U.S. automaker operates, and this picture shows that Tesla has far greater technological problems than are publicly known or perceived. The Tesla Auto Pilot seems to pose a particular problem. Quote from the Handelsblatt article

Thus, the Tesla Files contain thousands of reports about complications with the driving assistance systems. Complaints that Tesla vehicles brake abruptly at full speed. Or accelerate suddenly. That a Tesla apparently drove around bollards on its own in a parking lot. Many accidents ended badly, but some were fatal.

According to Handelsblatt, a table in the Tesla files on suspected safety problems with Autopilot contains around 3000 entries. The editors of Handelsblatt then sent Tesla an extensive list of questions in mid-May 2023 with a request for an answer. Tesla did not provide any answers, but the company demanded that Handelsblatt delete the data because it was data theft.

For example, the Tesla files are said to contain more than 2400 complaints about self-acceleration. More than 1,500 problems with braking functions are reported, including 139 cases of unintended emergency braking and 383 phantom braking after false collision warnings, it says. The number of crashes is more than 1,000, it says.

The complaints cover the period from 2015 to March 2022 and come not only from the U.S., but also from Europe and Asia. German Tesla drivers are also said to have sent numerous complaints about the vehicle's auto pilot or unusual incidents. Trade uinon IG-Metall is saying, "The information gained from the leak fit into the picture we have gained in just under two years from our own impressions and descriptions of colleagues at Tesla."

Tesla itself suspects a "disgruntled former employee" who misused his access as a service technician to pass on sensitive information. Meanwhile, the company is considering legal action against the named person. However, the issue is likely to gain momentum, especially since the data protection supervisory authority has now become aware of the incident and personal data of Tesla employees and probably also customers are affected.

The Handelsblatt seems to have already contacted Tesla customers and is trying to get in touch with affected peaople to respond on its website with the article Sind auch Ihre Daten in den Tesla-Files? Melden Sie sich bei der Redaktion! (Are your data also in the Tesla files? Contact the editorial office!). The editorial team is therefore providing a service that readers can use to check whether their information is included in the data set. To do this, the tool searches selected files for your employee ID or vehicle number (VIN).

There should be more to come to light now – and since the takeover of Twitter by Tesla founder Elon Musk with constant éclat, Tesla's "star" is also starting to sink – at least the myth has already been disenchanted and given way to a more realistic view. Let's wait and see what happens next – in the U.S., the Handelsblatt report is making waves in the media (see  Los Angeles Times, The Verge).

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