Tesla Model S Crashes While on Autopilot, Leads to Musk Vs. the Media
When is an accident not just an accident? When it involves a Tesla, according to Elon Musk. The electric automaker’s CEO took to Twitter to lambaste the media Monday night for reporting on the high-speed collision between a Tesla Model S and a stopped fire truck in Utah last Friday.
It’s true, a collision resulting in minor injuries usually only warrants a brief mention in local media, if that. However, context is key. When it’s revealed that Tesla’s semi-autonomous Autopilot system was activated at the time of the collision, sorry, that’s news.
On Monday, police in South Jordan, Utah said the Model S had been under the control of Autopilot when it collided with the rear of a fire truck at a red light. We say “under control,” as the 28-year-old driver claims she was looking at her phone prior to the time of the impact.
The Model S collided with the truck at a speed of 60 mph. According to media reports, the crash occurred during daylight hours, with light rain falling. The driver was treated for a broken foot, while the occupants of the truck emerged unscathed.
Naturally, speculation arose shortly after the crash as to whether Autopilot was involved, and given recent incidents, including two fatalities on U.S. highways (plus one in China), it’s not unwarranted. When the driver revealed she had been using (and misusing) Autopilot, the attention rightly focuses on why the car’s semi-autonomous system did not attempt to avoid the collision. Witnesses claim the vehicle didn’t brake prior to the impact.
“It’s super messed up that a Tesla crash resulting in a broken ankle is front page news and the ~40,000 people who died in US auto accidents alone in past year get almost no coverage,” tweeted Musk.
The CEO quickly added, “What’s actually amazing about this accident is that a Model S hit a fire truck at 60mph and the driver only broke an ankle. An impact at that speed usually results in severe injury or death.”
Many modern carmakers would disagree, as brakes and airbags and crumple zones and high-strength steel and every other safety aid in existence is also accessible to other companies. In a Twitter exchange with Techmeme, Musk responded to a posted report that claimed he rejected the use of eye-tracking technology (used by Cadillac’s Super Cruise system to monitor driver awareness) in the interest of cost savings. Musk claimed he rejected the technology because it is ineffective.
“According to NHTSA, there was an automotive fatality every 86M miles in 2017 (~40,000 deaths),” he stated. “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.”
As Bozi Tatarevic quickly pointed out, the average age of a vehicle on U.S. roads is 11.6 years old, which skews the stats further in Musk’s favor. Also, those NHTSA figures seem to include fatal collisions involving motorcycles.
Still, Tesla aficionados (to use a polite term) quickly rushed to Musk’s defense, both before and after the revelation of Autopilot involvement in the Utah crash.
It’s true that the company, after touting the self-driving capabilities of its Autopilot system during its infancy, has taken a more cautious tack in recent years. The company warns drivers to remain aware, to keep their hands on the wheel, and to be ready to respond at any given moment. Under these guidelines, the Utah driver was indeed driving in an unsafe manner. We don’t know for how long her attention was diverted, nor what warnings she may have received from the vehicle.
But the question remains — why didn’t the car’s cameras and radar react to the approaching truck and activate the car’s automatic emergency braking system?
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