2016 Tesla Model S
With details about a fatal May 7 crash of a Tesla Model S operating on Autopilot continuing to garner news coverage, more crashes with Autopilot engaged appear to be surfacing.
Most notably, the NHTSA has said it will investigate a crash on Friday, July 1, in which a Tesla Model X ran off the road and rolled over.
The owner says it was operating on Autopilot, but Tesla Motors issued a statement yesterday saying its data showed no signs of that.
[UPDATE: Tesla Motors issued more details on July 14 from the Autopilot logs in the Model X that crashed on July 1. The Autosteer function had turned itself off about 40 seconds beforehand because it did not detect the drivers' hands on the wheel. CEO Elon Musk announced the fact in a tweet as well.]
The emergence of more crashes, some of which had been discussed on Tesla owner forums, was reported on July 6 by The Wall Street Journal.
One such case involved a Model S owner whose Autopilot had driven the car along an Interstate highway for 17 minutes when he began to review some papers.
2016 Tesla Model X
When he looked up, his car was heading straight for a truck parked in his lane. He swerved, but hit the truck. The car was totaled.
Tesla's defense, in that and other cases, is that the system had performed as it should and that the driver was responsible for the crash.
The Model X involved in the July 1 incident was being operated on a Pennsylvania highway by its Michigan owner, who told the Pennsylvania State Police that Autopilot was engaged.
The crash report says the Model X hit a guard rail along the right-hand side of the highway, crossed back over all lanes, and hit the concrete median divider. It rolled onto its roof and ended up in the middle traffic lane.
Neither occupant was hurt, though a car traveling in the other direction was hit by debris from the incident.
Tesla Motors issued a statement yesterday saying it had no evidence that Autopilot was involved in the crash:
We received an automated alert from this vehicle on July 1 indicating air bag deployment, but logs containing detailed information on the state of the vehicle controls at the time of the collision were never received.
Tesla Autopilot Test
Tesla Autopilot Test
This is consistent with damage of the severity reported in the press, which can cause the antenna to fail.
As we do with all crash events, we immediately reached out to the customer to confirm they were okay and offer support, but were unable to reach him.
We have since attempted to contact the customer three times by phone without success. Based on the information we have now, we have no reason to believe that Autopilot had anything to do with this accident.
The driver of the Model X, gallery owner Albert Scaglione, has apparently not responded to media inquiries since the crash.
The Reuters news service reported late on July 6 that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it would investigate that crash.
Tesla Model S Autopilot system
In both cases, the crux of the problem seems to be that Autopilot is essentially a collection of driver-assistance functions, not an "Autopilot" in the airplane sense that most people understand it.
But "interviews with drivers and engineers," the Journal wrote, "suggest that enthusiasm for autonomous driving has raced ahead of the technology’s capabilities, deepening concerns about road safety."
Attention from regulators and media, however, is likely to continue to focus on Autopilot.
Most other makers who offer similar suites of electronic driver-assistance functions require periodic steering-wheel "hands on" checks, though the frequency of such checks can vary from 10 or 15 seconds to a few minutes.
Alternatively, changing the name of the system to contain "Assist"—similar to the practice at German luxury brands—might put its capabilities in better context for the uninitiated.