Tesla Autopilot System: New Report Questions How Much Trust We Should Put in “Self-Driving” Cars

February 12, 2020

Why do buyers choose to purchase Tesla vehicles? One notable reason is that Tesla vehicles are electric and sold exclusively online. Tesla chose this business model in order to remain “financially stable.” To purchase a Tesla, a buyer only needs to visit the Tesla website and can customize a vehicle to their own specifications. The company website claims that “Tesla vehicles are engineered to be the safest cars in the world.” The website also claims that “Model S, Model X and Model 3 have achieved the lowest probability of injury of any vehicle ever tested by the U.S. government’s New Car Assessment Program.”While Tesla vehicles have driven over 1 billion miles with its Autopilot feature, there have been complications to question how safe and reliable this technology can be. 

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recently issued a report regarding the repercussions that have resulted when Tesla drivers activate the Autopilot feature. When a Tesla vehicle has Autopilot engaged, drivers assume that the vehicle is basically driving itself. While Tesla has urged drivers to understand that they are still responsible for controlling the vehicle, accidents and some fatalities have occurred after a driver has initiated Autopilot. 

In one instance, a 38-year-old driver from California was killed in March 2018 when his Tesla Model X collided into a highway divider. Family members reported the driver explaining how his Autopilot would steer into that exact highway divider on multiple occasions and how he would have to manually control the car to stay within his lane. The computer-monitoring system on the driver’s vehicle confirmed that the vehicle had steered into that divider on separate instances. While records showed that the driver was playing a game on his mobile phone at the time of the accident, there was no data to show whether or not the driver still had a hand on the steering wheel. 

Another fatality occurred when a 50-year-old driver in Florida crashed into a truck while his Model 3 was in Autopilot. In this case, the driver was speeding, and the NTSB report did not detect the driver’s hands on the steering wheel for the 7.7 seconds prior to the collision. While a Tesla vehicle has sensors to detect the objects surrounding it, some stationary objects have been reported to go undetected. The truck in this case had not fully stopped at a stop sign and was slowly proceeding into oncoming traffic. 

In a 2019 Fourth Quarter Report, Tesla released that when drivers used Autopilot, there was only one registered accident for every 3.07 million miles driven. In comparison to those driving without Autopilot, there was one registered accident for every 2.10 million miles driven. Data proving that Tesla vehicles operate more efficiently using Autopilot creates the question of how automobile manufacturers proceed. As technology continues to evolve, more vehicles will be equipped with Autopilot technology. Even though Tesla has made drivers aware that Autopilot does not give drivers the option to not maintain control of their vehicle, some drivers do not follow that caution. 

With autonomous vehicles (AVs) gaining momentum in the automobile industry, it will be imperative that drivers understand the actual function of a “self-driving” car. Lawmakers are now in the process of finding a balance between remaining at the forefront of technology and producing the safest quality vehicles. This month in Washington D.C. at a subcommittee of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers explained, “There’s a global race to AVs. Do we want China to win that race? Or do we want to lead?” . . . “Do we want all the safety, faster traffic and mobility benefits to go abroad, or do we want to win this future and deliver for the American people?” Representative Debbie Dingell added, “It’s critical that America be at the forefront of innovation by leading the development in this technology.” . . . “If we don’t, we’re going to lost our competitive edge in this critical space.”

Lexus has announced in 2020 that it will release a feature within its vehicles similar to Tesla’s Autopilot; however, this new system will allow drivers to remove their hands from the steering wheel so long as their eyes remain on the road. Lexus’ new Highway Teammate system will have the capability to change lines and even pass other vehicles. As versions of the Tesla Autopilot system are being integrated into competitor’s designs, problems will continue to arise in regards to how much our society should trust these autonomous vehicles to keep drivers safe. 

J. Logan Rigsbee