Tesla is still dealing with the fallout from a Model X crash earlier this year that claimed the life of the driver. The family alleges the crash was the fault of Tesla’s Autopilot feature. News that firefighters had trouble keeping the battery from exploding even days later is not exactly helping, either. Now, Tesla is looking at another PR nightmare as the driver of a car that smashed into a parked fire truck says her Model S was also in Autopilot mode.
The accident occurred in Utah last Friday, but mainstream media didn’t wait for details before they started blaming the Autopilot feature. This week, police have reported that the 28-year-old driver claimed she did have the car’s Autopilot feature engaged at the time of the crash. Tesla’s Autopilot allows the vehicle to drive itself for short periods of time with steering, acceleration, and braking based on traffic conditions. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is conducting an investigation, but this doesn’t look good for Tesla’s Autopilot system.
Tesla has released significant evidence to the public regarding the recent Model X crash, but we don’t know what official response it will have to the latest incident. CEO Elon Musk has publicly derided reporting on the incident as unfair, pointing out how many people are killed in crashes while driving traditional cars. In fairness, the driver of the Model S was remarkably lucky. The driver hit a fire truck going 60 miles per hour and only suffered a broken ankle. That kind of accident in most instances would have resulted in serious injury or death.
It’s not the structural design of Tesla cars at issue here, but the reliability of Autopilot. The driver admitted to police she was looking at her phone just prior to the crash, and Tesla does alert drivers using Autopilot that they need to be ready to take control of the car at any moment. You could argue the driver was distracted and was not following recommended operating procedures at the time of the crash.
On the other side of the issue, Tesla’s critics wonder how Autopilot could miss a fire truck. The system’s radar should have identified a large obstacle and applied the brake while sounding the alarm. This sort of technology is not unique to Tesla — many vehicles can sense imminent collisions and apply the brake. The NTSB investigation will no doubt cover this issue, but Tesla has yet to confirm any facts in this case.
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