A woman rear-ended a fire truck in Utah last week and broke her ankle in the crash. That in and of itself doesn’t seem like the typical story that would trigger national coverage, but because a Tesla electric car with semi-autonomous features was involved, everyone’s talking about it.
This week, Tesla CEO Elon Musk doubled (tripled? quadrupled?) down on the safety of Tesla’s Autopilot feature — a semi-automated driver assistance mode Tesla introduced to its cars in 2014 and now comes with every vehicle. The stat Musk and the company repeated (and will continue to repeat) about Autopilot reducing crash rates by 40 percent came under some scrutiny earlier this month. Wired found that the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration-backed stat is likely based on flawed, unreliable data.
Because this sensor- and camera-heavy technology is still relatively new and constantly under development it warrants a closer look. Most drivers don’t consider Autopilot and other semi-autonomous features commonplace even if Musk does. His stance may show how out of touch he is with the regular motorist.
It’s still unclear if the crash in South Jordan, Utah, was the fault of the Autopilot program gone awry. The woman told police she was on her phone while Autopilot was engaged in her Model S, which is the exact situation Tesla warns about. If you’re not paying attention crashes can happen. Tesla told Jalopnik that it hasn’t received any data about the incident and can’t definitively say whether or not Autopilot was engaged. We reached out Tesla for more about the crash, but have yet to hear back.
Police went out of their way to reiterate Tesla’s warnings about automated features: “It is the driver’s responsibility to stay alert, drive safely, and be in control of the vehicle at all times. Tesla makes it clear that drivers should always watch the road in front of them and be prepared to take corrective actions.”
According to NHTSA, there was an automotive fatality every 86M miles in 2017 (~40,000 deaths). Tesla was every 320M miles. It’s not possible to be zero, but probability of fatality is much lower in a Tesla. We will be reporting updated safety numbers after each quarter.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 14, 2018
Earlier this year Tesla introduced event data recorder tools, or EDR, for crashes, so the woman could ostensibly log in and get more info about her car and what happened. As Tesla explains about the resource, “The recorded data may help Tesla and other interested parties better understand the circumstances which lead to crashes and the potential for injury.” However, no Autopilot data will be logged through the black-box system.
No matter what went down in Utah, the kinks of a self-driving system (even if it’s only Level 2 automation and requires full attention of the driver, as Tesla repeatedly stresses) need to be highlighted, examined, and tracked. After March’s fatal crash south of San Francisco in which a man driving a Model X in Autopilot mode hit the median, Tesla needs to examine its “safety” feature with more scrutiny.
“Someone gets used to having an autonomous driver, then they disengage. That’s natural human behavior,” Paul Hightower, CEO of video-recording tech company Instrumentation Technology Systems, said in a phone call Tuesday. Tesla, in his estimation, shouldn’t expect its drivers to be able to switch from passive rider to attentive motorist.
Autopilot certainly has its moments that Musk will quickly tell you don’t get attention because it’s saving lives like it’s NBD. After moments like this one caught on camera show Autopilot narrowly avoiding a swerving truck, Musk must’ve beamed from his factory office couch — finally people see what the safety feature can do.
Even if no one was killed or seriously injured, Friday’s incident shows Autopilot has its work cut out for it. While Autopilot includes auto-steering, adaptive cruise control, lane-changing, automatic braking, auto lighting adjustments, side warnings, and front collision warnings, this isn’t a perfect or fully autonomous system.
The company warns that the car cannot detect everything and may not brake or slow down for stationary vehicles — especially if you’re going faster than 50 MPH and the car ahead moves out of the way for a stationary object. That sounds beyond similar to what happened Friday in Utah.
Tesla’s owner manuals and built-in warning systems try to educate and persuade drivers to use the autonomous features safely and cautiously. Staying alert and present is a huge part of Tesla’s messaging and education. If hands aren’t detected on the wheel enough drivers get locked out of Autopilot. Other alerts are set off based on speed, road markings, and traffic. But in an instant, the Autopilot feature’s flaws are exposed.
In that situation where the vehicle ahead suddenly moves out of the way for a parked or non-moving vehicle, Autopilot needs to be able to respond — and quickly. “if Autopilot isn’t capable of dealing with that you shouldn’t be able to use it,” Hightower said.
From the outside it was just another rear-ender, but with the possibility of Autopilot controlling the wheel most Tesla accidents will continue making headlines not matter how much Musk protests.