A fatal crash involving the Tesla Model 3’s autopilot feature occurred on March 1, 2019 in Florida and has begun to raise questions in regards to the safety and plausibility of an automatic driving feature in cars. The 50-year-old driver was reported to have engaged the autopilot feature about 10 seconds prior to colliding with a semi truck, killing the driver; the driver of the truck was uninjured. While the investigation is ongoing, the Tesla driver is not said to be at fault for the accident.
Tesla describes their autopilot system as an advanced driver assistance program that features 8 external cameras, a radar, ultrasonic sensors and an on board computer. Despite its name, however, it does not function as a fully automated driving software, but instead as a driving assistance software for “a fully attentive driver, who has their hands on the wheel and is prepared to take over at any time.” (Tesla) The program’s active safety features include collision warnings, automatic emergency breaking, and lane departure avoidance software. Other features include automatic driving functions, such as steering, parking, or changing lanes.
In using the autopilot feature, Tesla states that the driver must have their hands on the wheel at all times in case of circumstances in which they themselves must take over. The vehicles are able to detect whether or not the driver’s hands are on the wheel while the program is engaged. The driver in the March 1 accident was found to have not had their hands detected on the wheel prior to the accident, thus reporting that they allegedly weren’t following the proper safety guidelines recommended by Tesla. Despite this, Tesla is still receiving criticism for their handling of this accident as well as several others, including another Florida accident that occurred in 2016.
The accident raises concerns about the safety of this feature. Tesla has defended their autopilot system, with their own safety report for the first quarter of the year showing “one accident for every 2.87 million miles driven in which drivers had Autopilot engaged.” This shows favorable results to accidents for drivers without the autopilot feature engaged, which showed that an accident occurred every 1.76 million miles driven. Despite this, several of the accidents that have occurred when autopilot was engaged have been fatal, hence its questionable reliability.
It can also be believed that the name “autopilot” was a misleading marketing tactic. The feature itself is far from a fully automated driving software—something Tesla CEO Elon Musk has stated is on the way to being developed—yet the name “autopilot” seems to have some drivers under the impression that it is just that. Accidents that have occurred are resulting in legal action being taken against Tesla, with one such case involving the family of an accident victim suing the automaker, despite the vehicle detecting that the driver’s hands were not on the wheel at the time of the accident.
Tesla’s Model 3 manual offers specific instructions for the feature and how to properly use it. Despite this, the increased frequency of these accidents is raising concerns for both drivers and for Tesla itself.