Is Tesla Throwing Customer Privacy Under the Wheels?

By:  Sam Thielman

Luxury car maker Tesla is throwing some drivers’ privacy under the wheels following accidents in order to defend its hi-tech self-driving car technology.

And while the company has handed data to media following crashes, it won’t provide its customers’ data logs to the drivers themselves, according to interviews conducted by the Guardian.

Tesla regularly communicates detailed information about crashes involving its cars with the media whenever a driver points a finger at its automation software following an accident.

“Autopilot has been shown to save lives and reduce accident rates, and we believe it is important that the public have a factual understanding of our technology,” said a company spokesperson in an email.

The Guardian could not find a single case in which Tesla had sought the permission of a customer who had been involved in an accident before sharing detailed information from the customer’s car with the press when its self-driving software was called into question. Tesla declined to provide any such examples and disputed the description of its automation software, called Autopilot, as “self-driving”.

Data that shows up in the press often comes from the onboard computers of the cars themselves and can tell the public — and law enforcement officials — whether a customer’s hands were on the wheel, when a door was opened, which of its self-driving processes were active at the moment and whether or not they had malfunctioned.

In only one case — the May death of Canton, Ohio, Tesla driver Joshua Brown — has the company publicly admitted that its software made a mistake. In that case, the Autopilot software did not “see” the white side of a tractor-trailer as it moved in front of the car against the white sky. The driver was reportedly watching one of the Harry Potter movies at that moment and did not see the vehicle, either.

Tesla takes issue with the characterization of Autopilot’s performance in the crash as a failure and told the Guardian that it only distributes detailed information from the site of auto accidents to the press when it believes someone quoted in the media is being unfair.

In responding to another crash, the collision of a Tesla Model S with a van parked on a Swiss highway, the company declined to send a customer the data logs from his own car, according to the driver of the Model S.

The driver, who spoke to the Guardian on condition that his name not appear in this article, praised the company’s progress but said the crash had given him reservations. “I still love my Tesla,” he said. “Tesla is on the right tracks, but they need to speed up the pace and be more open and honest with the data they collect.”

The Swiss driver said that as “a Tesla fanboy” he was interested in seeing the material the company could instruct his car’s systems to collect — something that he said would be vital to them in a court of law. Tesla said it doesn’t show anyone the logs themselves, only a description of the logs that it distributes to media when it feels the integrity of its product has been impugned.

“Drivers don’t have access to this data to defend themselves if they need it,” the Swiss driver said. “So this data is 100% to the disadvantage of the drivers.”

In several other cases, Tesla appears to have distributed data from its cars’ onboard computers to the press in an effort to defend its own products at the expense of their customers.

Last May, Utah driver Jared Overton’s Tesla crashed into a trailer allegedly on its own; Tesla sent two media organizations its letter to Overton including a detailed description saying that Overton had activated the car’s “Summon” function, detailing when and how its doors had opened and blaming Overton for not pressing “cancel” in time to prevent the crash. In a similar incident to the Swiss crash, Los Angeles driver Arianna Simpson said Autopilot failed to prevent her Model S from slamming into a stopped car on interstate 5 outside Lebec, California.

Tesla said she had used the brakes, taking the car out of cruise control.

In June, an unnamed Montana Tesla driver blamed an Autopilot malfunction for a car crash — Tesla responded by telling Fortune that the driver hadn’t had his or her hands on the steering wheel according to a report to Tesla from the car’s sensors.

Albert Scaglione, a Michigan art dealer, was cited for careless driving on the Pennsylvania turnpike in July, after his Model X crashed and rolled over, injuring his son-in-law, who was in the car with him. Scaglione blamed an Autopilot malfuction; at first Tesla pleaded ignorance, saying the crash had damaged the antenna and prevented it from collecting the data. Scaglione was cited for careless driving, according to public records; the company said Scaglione did not responded to its inquiries. Less than a week later, Tesla founder Elon Musk tweeted that he had subsequently seen the logs and they exonerated the company of any wrongdoing.

For each of these cases, Tesla told the Guardian the company had no choice but to correct the record, even when the record in question was a statement made to police, as in the case of Scaglione’s accident, or a post on a message board by a friend of the driver, the source of the claims about Autopilot in the Montana report.

The AP observed in September that “Tesla Motors has used data to reveal — sometimes within hours of a crash — how fast the driver was going and whether or not the company’s semi-autonomous Autopilot system was engaged.”

In a statement to the Guardian, Tesla defended this practice. “In unusual cases in which claims have already been made publicly about our vehicles by customers, authorities or other individuals, we have released information based on the data to either corroborate or disprove these claims. The privacy of our customers is extremely important and something we take very seriously, and in such cases, Tesla discloses only the minimum amount of information necessary.”

Tesla indemnifies itself extensively in its privacy policy, granting itself the right to ” transfer and disclose information, including personal and non-personally identifiable information … to protect the rights, property, safety, or security of the Services, Tesla, third parties, visitors to our Services, or the public, as determined by us in our sole discretion”. The legal status of user agreements varies by jurisdiction.

After the Swiss crash, the driver of the Model S sent Tesla a certified letter instructing the company not to download data from any of his Teslas, of which he owns several. “I hereby withdraw previous implicit consent and request the immediate deletion of all already stored data. These data may be interrogated directly by me (eg via the Tesla app or the Rest API [programming interface]), but they may not be recorded by Tesla. No other functions of the vehicle may be impaired by omission of the recording of the data.”

The driver said he believed Tesla had violated Swiss data protection law by declining to send the raw data; Tesla said it believes it has complied as far as the law requires.