Tesla Model S Crashes While on Autopilot, Leads to Musk Vs. the Media

Steph Willems
by Steph Willems
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?

[Sources: NBC, Washington Post] [Images: Tesla, South Jordan Police Department via Associated Press]

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3 of 98 comments
  • Mcs Mcs on May 15, 2018

    Does anyone know if this was the old single camera system or year of the car? I've been looking at the photos, but can't figure it out one way or another. With the older version of "autopilot", I wouldn't be surprised at the collision. I'm curious to see if it's the new version.

    • Mcs Mcs on May 15, 2018

      Taking a closer look at the images, I'm thinking version 1, but I could be wrong. Not a fan of single camera systems.

  • Jalop1991 Jalop1991 on May 15, 2018

    "The driver was treated for a broken foot, while the paint on the truck remained unscathed." Fixed that for you.

  • Stuki Moi If government officials, and voters, could, like, read and, like, count and, like, stuff: They'd take the opportunity to replace fixed license numbers, with random publicly available keys derived from a non-public private key known only to them and the vehicle's owner. The plate's displayed number would be undecipherable to every slimeball out there with a plate reader who is selling people's whereabouts and movements, since it would change every day/hour/minute. Yet any cop with a proper warrant and a plate scanner, could decipher it just as easily as today.
  • Dukeisduke Is this the one that doesn't have a back window? Like a commercial van?
  • MaintenanceCosts My rant seems to have disappeared, but suffice it to say I agree with 28 that this is a vehicle about which EVERYTHING is wrong.
  • SCE to AUX Welcome to the most complicated vehicle you can buy, with shocking depreciation built into every one.And that tail - oh, my.
  • FreedMike Can these plates be reprogrammed on demand to flash messages at other drivers? If so, I'd like to flash "Is your insurance paid up?" to tailgaters.