Tesla: The crash that may signal more trouble for Autopilot

By Lenore Miller Fahrenheit is not the temperature in Tesla’s Supercharger locations, but rather the reported recall level of a suite of Tesla’s Autopilot software after a new crash involving the system. A Model…

Tesla: The crash that may signal more trouble for Autopilot

By Lenore Miller

Fahrenheit is not the temperature in Tesla’s Supercharger locations, but rather the reported recall level of a suite of Tesla’s Autopilot software after a new crash involving the system.

A Model S being driven by an 11-year-old boy in Milpitas, California, on September 10 veered off the road, slamming into a tree and suffering severe damage. Video taken of the scene shows that while the car had received its “Autopilot” sensor update the day before, it is unclear if the boy was wearing a seatbelt and the boy’s parents said they noticed nothing amiss before the crash. Tesla provided the following statement in a blog post:

“We don’t use a specific code for driver assistance that was built on in 2015. We are not able to provide specific code or specifications for Autopilot due to our need to retain the security of our proprietary software. In many cases, the driver acknowledges that the car takes some of the responsibility for driving themselves. When the system is engaged, it receives many input events from the cameras and ultrasonic sensors in the front of the vehicle (i.e. pedestrians and other vehicles) and triggers a warning from the driver if it believes the driver is at fault. The default behavior of the system is to continue to act in the driver’s direction if it believes the driver to be taking appropriate action. Additionally, the vehicle is not allowed to take any actions without explicit acknowledgement from the driver using the touch screen.”

Tesla appears not to have notified the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration of the incident and not to have filed a report on the crash. When asked for comment, the NHTSA did not return requests for comment. Tesla says the accident is being investigated by the carmaker but so far has not provided any details.

Tesla’s lead spokesperson, Khobi Brooklyn, says that Tesla offers the “SafetySense” precaution in the system, as it would in a vehicle with a driver who is paying attention. The system explains to the driver that it is giving the driver some responsibility by prompting the driver to “receive a warning if you do not take action. If you do not respond with an affirmative word, the system disengages.” The report on the crash from the company says that neither the father nor the boy were wearing seatbelts at the time of the crash.

NHTSA is in the midst of an investigation into Tesla’s Autopilot system. On August 31, NHTSA announced it was looking into a crash in Florida where Autopilot assisted in the pickup truck rear-ending a tractor-trailer. A Tesla spokesperson says the company has cooperated with the investigation and provides over-the-air updates to its software on a regular basis.

According to Tesla’s website, the standard version of the Autopilot software available in the United States goes live and rolls out automatically to Model S vehicles every day. The data is sent back to Tesla almost instantaneously so the company can process it, process commands and if necessary implement a software update.

Tesla says it is rolling out an enhanced version of Autopilot for Model S and Model X customers.

When asked about the safety of such a suite of software, Tesla spokesperson Khobi Brookly notes that cars equipped with Vehicle Information Systems and Level 2 in-cabin equipment offer a few more defenses than Tesla, including front-end collision and braking systems as well as a way to “seize control from the system by allowing the steering wheel to be moved to a forward or left position. The driver must first be able to steer their car in a forward direction with their foot and must remember to keep that hand on the wheel at all times. Most vehicles with dual-mode capabilities are equipped with this type of auto steering, front-end and braking emergency systems which are capable of attacking other vehicles, wild animals, walls and other objects.

“The person making the decision to use vehicle information systems and then employing the semi-autonomous functionality must understand that they must keep their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road at all times,” says Brookly. “The driver of a Tesla takes an active role in the operation of the car and is required to use the system with both hands on the wheel and both eyes on the road. It is clear from these examples that drivers of Tesla vehicles are actively keeping their hands on the wheel. Our technology also gives the driver control over several situations by enabling them to determine what is safest for the vehicle and occupants. While not for everyone, our vehicles provide excellent safety and ownership value.”

Here is the one-minute video that caught the first glimpse of the crash:

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