Opinion: It's Past Time for a Tesla Autopilot Recall
The evidence keeps stacking up against Tesla. As the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration investigates crash after crash involving Tesla vehicles under the influence (or suspected influence) of Autopilot, when is enough too much?
As we reported most recently, the NHTSA has racked up 14 investigations into Tesla vehicles that collided with other vehicles, including three over the past month. Most often, it seems the Teslas mistake large emergency vehicles for empty space and plow right into them. Through a combination of the company’s seemingly flawed Autopilot system and driver inattention, the death count keeps rising. It’s time for a recall of the whole damn thing.
Human beings prove time and time again that they’re willing to over-trust any driver assistance provided to them. Whether said assistance comes in the form of ABS, an airbag, all-wheel drive, parking sensors, stability control, or automatic headlights, the public puts immediate and complete trust in whatever assistance systems their vehicles left the factory with.
It comes as no surprise that the public is treating Autopilot like the fully autonomous system it isn’t. The system allows drivers to make momentary and occasional eye contact with the road, rather than demanding it full-time. Surely, if significant driver attention were actually required, collisions with enormous parked fire trucks would not occur. And that’s why the NHTSA needs to enforce a recall in this situation. Until Autopilot works reliably around all other vehicles and demands driver attention, it’s still in the development phase. It’s not ready for prime time.
Of course, the most important improvement is required driver attention. Drivers will do whatever they can to get around actually driving, as their phones beckon them like sirens of the sea. The system as it stands is clearly too lenient: Infrequent and distracted attention to the road is not enough to provide the driver with awareness of a small obstacle like a parked fire truck. I’d recommend that after a certain number of attention violations, the Autopilot system shuts down entirely. A cool-down period punishment of eight hours should suffice. Perhaps after two or three such cool-downs, a dealer maintenance visit is required to reactive Autopilot. Just spitballing here.
But until such time as the system is fool proof for the fools behind the wheel, it’s going to continue killing people. Safety is just a system update away; the NHTSA should file that recall paperwork ASAP.
Z9 on Jan 11, 2020
I've had access to Autopilot in a couple of different cars for about three years. There are two basic features -- one is cruise control (TACC) which in my limited experience works substantially better than any other similar system that I've tried. Just as an example, I've found the Kia / Hyundai system to be positively dangerous in its inability to deal with slow traffic, so if anyone's going to do a recall we can start there. The Tesla system has been rock solid and it if it isn't, it's very aware of its limitations and will not work in cases of limited visibility (and why would you be trying to use it in those situations in the first place?). However, one of the features of the Tesla TACC is the ability to set a following distance between 1 and 7 (where the higher number is farther away from the car in front of you). I believe it now defaults to 5, but it used to be more like 3, which scared the crap out of me. So one regulation that could be an immediate improvement would be a minimum following distance for these systems that would allow a little more time for a last-minute reaction. If the system does fail, Tesla has an automatic emergency braking system that has saved me from a minor crash once, but the greater the following distance the better. Mostly I use TACC in heavy traffic; it is far more pleasant than constantly speeding up and slowing down. But I keep my foot poised over the brake pedal in case there's a problem. Even with that, a car making decisions about how fast it should go is definitely soporific. I imagine people who use the autosteer experience sleepiness to an even greater degree. Research I've seen suggests that when a random person gets in a self-driving simulator suggests they almost invariably fall asleep after a while. This is to me incredibly concerning. As for Tesla's autosteer adnd all the other stuff, I am already a nervous passenger so why would I want my car steering itself? I wouldn't have a problem if the NHTSA just said automatic steering is not happening, now or ever. My new Model 3 is the best handling, most fun to drive car I have ever owned so I wouldn't miss self-steering for a second. I've met a couple of other Tesla owners who are unfortunately convinced Autopilot is safer than their own driving. Another thing I am sure is happening is that elderly drivers are seeing Autopilot as a way to get a few more years of independence before Junior takes the keys away. In its current incarnation it almost certainly would not have prevented the crash that precipitated taking my mom's car away from her. You might also be aware that Tesla is now offering their own car insurance. I don't know if they do this now, but you can imagine, given their inclination, that they might start offering discounts for greater use of Autopilot. Again this combined with everything else around this technology has an unsettling dystopian feel to it. Or imagine you could agree to pay a little more if you wanted to be a sick daredevil and keep your TACC following distance at 1. Ah, good old vertical integration...
ToolGuy on Jan 11, 2020
On the general topic of automotive fatalities (and injuries, and crashes in general), NHTSA has a new query tool (Fatality and Injury Reporting System Tool, or FIRST) which is fairly easy to use: https://cdan.nhtsa.gov/query Refer to the "sample queries" on the right side of the page for a quick start (you may then modify the sample query on your own). Potential areas to explore: Seat belt use, blood alcohol content, speeding, time of day/light condition/atmospheric conditions, rollover, type of vehicle, age of driver, etc etc. A surprising level of granularity is available (see the "...by State" sample query as an example), and geographic mapping is available for some queries (see the "...Police Reported..." sample query).
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