How a hacker discovered that Tesla’s in-car camera retains accident footage

Ronan Glon

The ever-increasing amount of technology in our cars makes it relatively simple for computer-savvy owners to find new and hidden features. A hacker from North Carolina did just that when he discovered that the camera used by Tesla’s Autopilot system automatically records footage in the event of an accident.

Jason Hughes, a Tesla owner and a programmer by trade, became curious to find out how much data — if any — the Model S saves after his car’s automatic emergency braking system turned on to prevent a crash. Much to his surprise, he found that basic information was stored on-board. To dig deeper, he bought the center display unit from a wrecked Tesla Model S and began tearing it down.

Hughes quickly learned the Model S that provided the center display unit was written off after its driver blasted through a yellow light at nearly 60 mph and hit a third-generation Acura TL that was making a left turn. He also found out that Autosteer wasn’t turned on at the time of the accident.

Tesla has often enumerated the features of its Autopilot suite of electronic driving aids, but it has never talked about the recording function. Hughes points out accessing the footage isn’t a straight-forward task that the average owner can replicate.

“I kind of knew what I was looking for, since I had messed with it on my own car. It’s not too terribly difficult. You have to basically gain root access to the Media Control Unit (MCU), and such. Tesla’s likely going to make that more difficult. I won’t say it’s simple, but it’s not impossible,” he explained in an interview with Inverse.

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The programmer believes that the camera’s footage is transferred to the MCU when the airbags deploy, and he adds that it’s not salvageable if the car is badly damaged. That means footage wasn’t sent from the camera to the MCU when a Model S hit a truck in Florida last May.

Tesla hasn’t yet commented on Hughes’ findings.