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.

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']

One section of the purchase agreement for the car itself covers Tesla's collection and storage of the telematics data captured by the car and transmitted back to the company:

b. Telematics Log Data. Your Vehicle collects and stores certain telematics data regarding its performance and condition, including the following: vehicle identification number, speed and distance information, battery use management information, battery charging history, battery deterioration information, electrical system functions, software version information, Infotainment system data, safety‐related data (including information regarding the Vehicle’s SRS systems, brakes, security, e‐brake), and other data to assist in identifying and analyzing the performance of the Vehicle (collectively, “Telematics Log Data”). We collect and process this Telematics Log Data.

There are, however, exceptions.

CHECK OUT: Tesla says it will build 500K cars a year by end of 2018; can it?

Various state laws within the U.S. and data-privacy regulations in other countries affect Tesla's ability to collect and use operating data.

The Tesla purchase agreement varies by state, and is crafted to remain within that state's rules.

Certain subsections may say something like "...except in [STATE]. The thing that's different is ... "

2012 Tesla Model S display screen [Photo: Flickr user jurvetson]

2012 Tesla Model S display screen [Photo: Flickr user jurvetson]

But Tesla owners should know: the company knows what you're doing with your car, and where, and how. 

We expect that sooner or later, that purchase agreement may be tested in court.


Our reader George K wrote a very pithy note to Green Car Reports taking great exception to the comparison of vehicle event data recorders (EDRs), in their current state, to the aviation "black boxes" fitted to all modern commercial passenger aircraft.

Those are regularly the subject of intensive ocean searches when an airplane goes down; he called the comparison an "illusion" and a "continuing myth," among other colorful comments.

His concerns with automotive EDRs include the following:

  • Passenger-car EDRs cannot detect if the vehicle's electronics have malfunctioned
  • Their data is partial, incomplete, and suspect
  • They do not record electronic errors that have [supposedly] been shown to cause sudden unexpected acceleration
  • Their contents can only be interpreted by the automakers themselves, who are hardly impartial observers

[hat tips: Chris Hightower, Chris Neff, Clint Fisher]


Follow GreenCarReports on Facebook and Twitter.