Safety Groups Downgrade Tesla Models for Dumping Radar

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is downgrading the Tesla Model 3 and Y following the company’s decision to remove radar from its advanced driver-assistance suite. We wrote about it, noting that the change actually removed several features from the affected cars and introduced the activation of another creepy, driving-monitoring camera.

While the latter aspect warranted the most cursing from your author’s side of the laptop, it’s the former that’s seeing the lion’s share of debate among groups advocating for vehicular safety. Everyone wants to blame Tesla’s overreliance on cameras as the thing contributing to high-profile crashes when there’s nary a vehicle on this planet that’s truly capable of driving itself. But that hasn’t stopped the NHTSA from slapping affected Tesla models into their own category, noting that they lack several functions it deemed important for safety. It’s all relative, considering there are millions of vehicles on the road that don’t have any advanced driving aids to speak of and heaps of evidence that electronic nannies don’t always function as intended. But it’s earning Tesla bad publicity as it gets dinged by increasingly more safety groups.

According to the manufacturer, swapping to “Tesla Vision” is supposed to temporarily restrict certain Autopilot features. For example, adaptive cruise control distances have increased and Autosteer is now limited to 75 mph. But it also is screwing with automatic emergency braking and lane-departure warnings, which are a big problem for safety groups that have been singing their praises.

Reuters reported that the NHTSA has split the Model 3 and Model Y into two camps where 2021 MY cars are now considered early or late release based upon whether or not they have radar equipped. Obviously, late models are getting a frowny face on their safety report and that’s likely to carry over when/if Tesla decides to strip radar from its larger vehicles.

From Reuters:

The move came amid growing scrutiny by regulators and media coverage about the safety of what Tesla dubs “Autopilot” and “Full Self-Driving (FSD)” features, following a series of crashes.

While most companies like Alphabet Inc’s (GOOGL.O) Waymo equip autonomous cars with cameras paired with sensors like lidars and radars, Tesla relied on cameras and one radar to detect and analyze objects.

Tesla’s approach helped reduce costs and commercialize its driver assistant features, but experts and other companies have raised safety concerns.

Tesla said the transition to a camera-focused system may result in limitations of some features such as lane-centering and parking assistance, functions which it said will be restored via software updates “in the weeks ahead.”

But it wasn’t just the NHTSA that had gripes. Consumer Reports (CR), which has always seem to go hard on Tesla, announced that it would be dropping the Model 3 from its Top Safety Pick status — noting that the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) was already on board with the downgrade. But the rationale had nothing to do with testing the cars or assessing whether or not Tesla Vision managed to pick up the slack of the absent radar system. Instead, CR simply noted that the government safety agency had some issues with the changes, and vehicles “may lack some key advanced safety features.”

They’re likely correct and Tesla basically admitted as much in its initial release on the updated status of its driving suite. But the joint release kind of makes the whole safety scene seem slightly incestuous.

“If a driver thinks their vehicle has a safety feature and it doesn’t, that fundamentally changes the safety profile of the vehicle,” said David Friedman, VP of advocacy for Consumer Reports and a former acting administrator of the NHTSA. “It might not be there when they think it would save their lives.”

That’s kind of the problem with functional driving aids, too. There’s mounting evidence that advanced driving aids are turning people into horrendously complacent motorists and frequently misfire, occasionally creating all new problems for drivers. But apparently, it’s only AAA that’s worried about that. Just about every other safety organization had decided the more nannies crammed into a vehicle, the better. Consumer Reports won’t even consider a vehicle worthy of Top Safety consideration unless it has forward-collision warning with automatic emergency braking. And yet it probably won’t matter one whit if those systems fail and the car slams into a vehicle thrice its size.

But we’re sympathetic. Testing requires serious resources and plenty of time. There’s also no easy way to update busy consumers on changes in a subtle and nuanced manner. So everyone’s understandably downgrading Tesla vehicles for de-contenting its vehicles. We would just caution you against assuming alternative systems are going to be dramatically better. Only a few outfits have started doing comprehensive appraisals of partially automated driving systems and even CR has confessed that their very existence fixes some problems while introducing entirely new safety risks.

But it still thinks all cars could benefit from them. The most we can say is that there are situations where they would certainly be a blessing and incidents where they’ve proven to be a curse.

[Image: Working Title Productions/Shutterstock]

Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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5 of 8 comments
  • Bullnuke Bullnuke on Jun 01, 2021

    My current view remains that these "safety" systems are designed for meat bags with anencephaly, hominidae that likely should not be behind the wheel to begin with. If such technology is regarded as needed for these folks, they need take the bus, train, or airline for travel. "seat belts, ABS, and anti-skid technology" as SCEtoAUX noted above are adequate for others not categorized with the above listed deficient "drivers".

    • See 2 previous
    • Inside Looking Out Inside Looking Out on Jun 01, 2021

      @DenverMike "Elon is capitalizing on idiots." Does that mean that the typical Tesla owner is a Trump voter?

  • Sirwired Sirwired on Jun 03, 2021

    I very much doubt many (if any) drivers ever depend on Collision Warning or Automatic Emergency Braking. It's a combination of obnoxious alarms and sudden/harsh braking action; it's not something anyone would ever rely on to drive the car.

  • V8fairy Absolutely no, for the same reasons I would not have bought a German car in the late 1930's, and I am glad to see a number of other posters here share my moral scruples. Like EBFlex I try to avoid Chinese made goods as much as possible. The quality may also be iffy, but that is not my primary concern
  • Tsarcasm No, Japan only. Life costs by Rank:#1 - House (150k+)#2 - Education (30k+)#3 - Automobile (30k+) why waste hard earned money in inferior crap => Korean, Chinese, and American cars are trash. a toyota or honda will last twice as long.
  • Tassos In the 90s we hired a former PhD student and friend of mine, who 'worked' at GM "Research" labs, to come work for us as a 'temp' lecturer and get paid extra. He had no objection from GM, came during the day (around 2 PM), two hours drive round trip, plus the 1.5 hour lecture, twice weekly. (basically he goofed off two entire afternoons out of the five) He told me they gave him a different model new car every month, everything (even gas) paid. Instead of him paying parking, I told him to give me the cars and I drove them for those 90 mins, did my shopping etc. Almost ALL sucked, except the Eldo coupe with the Northstar. That was a nice engine with plenty of power (by 90s standards). One time they gave him the accursed Caddy Catera, which was as fun driving as having sex with a fish, AND to make it worse, the driver's door handle broke and my friend told me GM had to pay an arm and a leg to fix it, needed to replace almost the whole damned door!
  • 3-On-The-Tree I only buy Toyota cars. But if the Chinese cars are cheap people will buy them. They don’t care about the above issues that were stated in this forum.
  • Tassos Ford models are like dumb Hollywood movies. The original is far better than their god damned sequels. This was true of the Mustang vs the II, AND the Capri vs its second gen, and their BEV PORKER atrocities many decades later