Tesla's Autopilot Gets a Closer Look Due to Lawsuits, NYT

Tim Healey
by Tim Healey

The New York Times went deep over the weekend on a subject that has long been talked about in this industry — Tesla’s Autopilot and its failures.

In this case, the paper of record goes in-depth and talks to people who are suing the company over crashes in which Autopilot is alleged to have failed.

The Times piece asserts something that more than a few auto journos I follow on Twitter — including, if my memory of reading his tweets is correct, one who once held the title I have at TTAC — have been screaming about for some time now. Namely, that it seems to be past time for the nation’s regulatory bodies to intervene. The paper reports that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has around a dozen open investigations into accidents involving Autopilot. It also reminds us at least three drivers of Teslas have been killed in crashes where Autopilot was engaged and didn’t detect obstacles since 2016.

NHTSA has said that at least 10 people have been killed in eight crashes involving Autopilot since 2016.

The Times piece further details how Autopilot isn’t a self-driving system and how drivers are supposed to remain aware and alert while using it — and that many don’t.

The National Transportation Safety Board says the system needs more safeguards and better driver monitoring, though we’ve worried about the privacy concerns involved in the latter in the past.

Other carmakers’ similar systems shut down if they detect the driver isn’t paying attention. We’ve also noted recently that the system seemingly can be cheated.

You might be wondering why the Times is just now seeming to cover an issue that has been covered extensively in the automotive press, and it looks to this author like the article is simply a detailed round-up of previously reported issues, one that looks into the human cost of the aftermath of some of these crashes. In other words, it reports very little new news but puts together disparate pieces of information in a one-stop shop for readers unfamiliar with the broader conversation around Tesla and self-driving.

The broader picture is this — if the Times piece has an impact with the right people among the powers that be, perhaps we could be moving closer to a future in which the regulatory bodies become more involved in making sure these systems are safe.

Tesla’s Autopilot has been controversial for several years. And its safety record is in question. Regardless of what you think of Tesla and/or Autopilot and/or autonomous driving, it seems reasonable to suggest that the brighter the spotlight shines on Autopilot (and competing systems offered by other carmakers), the more we’ll learn about the safety of it and systems like it.

[Image: Tesla]

Tim Healey
Tim Healey

Tim Healey grew up around the auto-parts business and has always had a love for cars — his parents joke his first word was “‘Vette”. Despite this, he wanted to pursue a career in sports writing but he ended up falling semi-accidentally into the automotive-journalism industry, first at Consumer Guide Automotive and later at Web2Carz.com. He also worked as an industry analyst at Mintel Group and freelanced for About.com, CarFax, Vehix.com, High Gear Media, Torque News, FutureCar.com, Cars.com, among others, and of course Vertical Scope sites such as AutoGuide.com, Off-Road.com, and HybridCars.com. He’s an urbanite and as such, doesn’t need a daily driver, but if he had one, it would be compact, sporty, and have a manual transmission.

More by Tim Healey

Join the conversation
3 of 33 comments
  • Ol Shel Ol Shel on Jul 06, 2021

    The public knows what an autopilot system does. Tesla falsely claims that it has autopilot. It misleads the users and the public. Yeah, yeah, you're happy that 'dumb' people are dying, because you think they deserve it. Thankfully, you're just an internet expert, and not a judge. Eventually, Musk's arrogance will catch up to him, and he will have to pay -literally- for it.

    • Flipper35 Flipper35 on Jul 07, 2021

      So, what exactly does the public know that autopilot does and what does the public think an autopilot does?

  • Mustangfast Mustangfast on Jul 06, 2021

    It is a bit disingenuous to call it autopilot and could lead to them being liable in these cases despite legal language. Especially considering customers paid extra for this supposedly superior option. Other makers brand theirs “copilot 360, i activesense, eyesight” etc that don’t carry the connotation of doing everything for you. Of course many people made money in Tesla stock, so I’d doubt it’s going to be an easy thing to change. I wonder if those who paid for it could demand a refund if their car is past its useful life and still no full autonomous driving?

  • El scotto Some rambling thoughts; Elon is pulling billions in cash out of Tesla. Tesla will be around, Elon won't let them fail. Mitsubishi is an odd place, you can't sell vehicles if you don't have dealers. Out of all the "Automalls" near you, how many have a Mitsubishi dealership? The Agnellis owned Fiat, Fiat got sold to Stellantis. The Agnellis control Exor. How much of Stellantis does Exor own? I really should be drinking beer with Billy Ford and talking Big-10 trash with him. Ford and Lucid should work out a partnership. You want an electric Lincoln? Have Lucid build it and slap a Lincoln name plate on it. BTW, kick Farley's butt to the curb.
  • Akear US contentChevrolet Trax - 5%Honda Pilot - 52%What a disgrace!I glad Consumer Reports panned the Trax, and put it on its avoid list.
  • Akear This is similar to what lazy GM and Ford used to do.
  • Gray Juneteenth - 72 responses. Unusual Isuzu pickup - 18 responses. Happy Juneteenth.
  • Doc423 Said some automakers were slow to adopt the technology of Smartphone Mirroring, too bad they aren't slower adopting the EV technology, rather than cramming it down our throats.