autonomous car safety

Tesla Model S, the type of semi-autonomous car involved in a fatal accident in May.

A recent editorial in The Washington Post opines that the Tesla Model S that crashed in May in Florida, killing the driver, did not really crash itself.

Various articles have suggested that Tesla’s semi-autonomous technology failed when the vehicle kept going through an intersection, hitting a large truck that was making a left turn.

The Tesla did not “see” the large truck because the white truck was difficult for its sensors to differentiate from a bright sky. But no semi-autonomous cars on the market are designed to be used as fully autonomous vehicles. A crash investigation has not yet determined if the Tesla driver was distracted at the time of the crash, and whether his hands were actually on the wheel.

The Washington Post goes on to say:

The Tesla’s ‘Autopilot’ feature was turned on. But the model was not designed to be and should not have been considered to be fully self-driving. The car’s semi-autonomous systems, which use onboard sensors to guide it away from hazards, were not advanced enough to steer and brake the car without the driver paying continuous attention and correcting when necessary.

Conflicting Messages

A Reuters article appearing in Fortune Magazine says that Tesla has sent out two messages that contradict each other and which might be confusing consumers.

  • Last year, Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk said that when the Autopilot system is turned on, a chime is heard and the dashboard tells the drivers to please keep his or her hands on the wheel. Musk told reporters last year that his company is being “especially cautious at this stage” in advising drivers to be ready to take over — a Tesla can sense when a driver is not paying attention, and gives that driver visual and auditory warnings to put his or her hands on the wheel and take control immediately.
  • However, in April of this year, Musk said at a conference that the Autopilot system was “almost twice as good as a person.” The second message seems to be the one resonating with Tesla drivers, some of whom have been posting YouTube videos that show them driving hands-free, and even sitting in the back seat instead of behind the wheel. One such video was posted by Musk’s own wife, actress Talulah Riley, who dances behind the wheel of her Tesla while a friend covers her eyes. And Musk has retweeted videos of Tesla drivers driving hands-free.

Tesla issued a statement saying that although Autopilot is “by far the most advanced driver assistance system on the road,” that does not make Tesla a fully autonomous vehicle, and does not mean a driver should give up responsibility.

Report of Accident Delayed

In a Fortune article, veteran financial journalist Carol J. Loomis criticized Musk and Tesla for taking two months to reveal that there had been a fatal accident involving a semi-autonomous Tesla. Loomis also calls out the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for sitting on the news of the crash for nearly two months.

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