Tesla can look at owners' driving behavior any time; is that legal?

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2016 Tesla Model X P90D after crash while owner was parking  [photo: owner 'Puzant']

2016 Tesla Model X P90D after crash while owner was parking [photo: owner 'Puzant']

It happens every so often: a driver claims that a car accelerated out of control just before it crashed into something or other.

Only in the last 10 years have automakers had data to investigate the claims, usually from a "black box" that captures a car's most recent few seconds of operating information.

Electric-car maker Tesla Motors has taken data collection on its cars' operation much further, with cars that continuously transmit what they're doing (and where) back to the company.

DON'T MISS: Tesla refutes owner claims of Model X 'sudden acceleration' before crash

That capability lets it accumulate location data over the billions of miles its cars travel, giving it a database of travel patterns that is part of its Autopilot self-driving software (still officially in beta).

But it also lets Tesla look at the controls a driver was using just before a crash.

And in the case of a new 2016 Tesla Model X whose owner claimed earlier this month that it "suddenly and unexpectedly accelerated at high speed on its own climbing over 39 feet of planters and crashing into a building," Tesla was quick to analyze the car's operating data.

2016 Tesla Model X P90D after crash while owner was parking [photo: owner 'Puzant']

2016 Tesla Model X P90D after crash while owner was parking [photo: owner 'Puzant']

A day later, Tesla denied that claim. The company issued a statement saying that its log data on the car's operation showed that the owner had been accelerating—not braking.

Little has been heard of the claim since then.

The new owner, who had owned the Model X electric SUV for just five days, may not have even been aware that Tesla Motors could get access to the vehicle's detailed operating data at any moment.

ALSO SEE: Tesla now building 2,000 electric cars a week, it says

But indeed, that's exactly what Tesla has—moving a decisive step beyond airliner-style black boxes that record only a segment of recent data.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: A reader takes great exception to this description. See note at the end of this article.]

And every Tesla owner has agreed to let the company do this as part of the purchase.

Tesla Autopilot sensor system

Tesla Autopilot sensor system

Here's the language that every owner accepts on buying a car, as laid out on the lengthy Privacy & Legal page of the Tesla Motors website: 

Other vehicle data: In order to help improve our products and services, we may collect and store data about accidents involving your Tesla vehicle (such as air bag deployment) and the following types of data: data about remote services (such as remote lock/unlock, start/stop charge, and honk-the-horn commands); a data report to confirm that your vehicle is online together with information about the current software version and certain telematics data; data about any issues that could materially impair operation of your vehicle; data about any safety‐critical issues; and data about each software and firmware update. We may collect such information either in person (e.g., during a service appointment) or via remote access.


 
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