NHTSA Identifies 12th Autopilot Related Crash Involving Emergency Vehicles


The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has identified another traffic incident pertaining to Tesla’s driver assistance features and emergency vehicles, making the current tally twelve. These wrecks have been a matter of focus for the agency ever since it opened a probe to determine whether or not Autopilot can handle hiccups in the road caused by scenes where flares, cones, disabled automobiles, and first responders coalesce.

Though concerns remain that Tesla is being singled out unjustly when there’s little evidence to suggest that other manufacturers are providing more capable systems. Tesla’s issues appear to be heavily influenced by irresponsible marketing that makes it seem as though its vehicles are self-driving when no manufacturer can make that claim. U.S. regulators now want to place more restrictions on vehicles boasting autonomous features and, thus far, Tesla has been behind on those trends. But it’s hard to support claims that they make vehicles safer when none seem as effective as they should be. 

Ironically, the safety concerns coming from the NHTSA actually make Tesla’s Autopilot more versatile than the competition. It can be used in more places and has fewer restrictions. General Motors’ SuperCruise is restricted to a limited number of roadways and requires an interior camera that perpetually monitors the driver. While it does add an apparent layer of protection, those restrictions feel invasive and force the operator to maintain the same level of focus they might when driving a car normally — completely defeating the purpose of “self-driving” systems.

The latest Tesla crash regulators are interested in took place in Orlando, FL, on Saturday. Like previous incidents meeting the necessary NHTSA criteria, the accident involved a Tesla vehicle using driver-assistance features “near” a first-responder scene striking another vehicle. Thus far, the investigation has tabulated seventeen injuries and one death.

While Tesla has updated its own safety protocols to be more in line with what its rivals are doing and regulators want (including interior cameras), it has simultaneously dumbed down the sensing equipment Autopilot uses by ditching radar. But the core issue remains that advanced driver assistance systems really aren’t up to snuff. Anyone who has owned a vehicle with modern hardware knows that driving aids can easily be sent into a tizzy when conditions are bad or the necessary equipment becomes damaged, dirty, or old. Regulators also aren’t worried about new Tesla models that Elon Musk thinks won’t need radar to be effective. They’re targeting cars from the 2014 to 2021 model years — all of them.

That makes it seem as though they’re concerned with driver attentiveness and how the company handles disengagement. Unfortunately, that would mean a lot more if modern systems worked as advertised. But your author has experienced too many incidents where lane-keeping tried to take things suddenly off-road and incessant chimes coming from some feature that was freaking out because traffic was heavy, the car was dirty, or something was damaged.

It’s admirable that the NHTSA wants to promote safety but they seem way off target. There’s little doubt that Autopilot has some serious issues and Tesla has indeed been irresponsible with its marketing. But there’s a bigger issue being ignored. While regulators fuss over whether or not older Tesla vehicles are safe when approaching an accident using Autopilot, they’ve allowed giant touch screens to be installed in every single modern automobile and a whole host of lackluster driver assistance features that too frequently have trouble performing their core functions. Customers mistaking Autopilot as truly self-driving is indeed a problem, but it probably hasn’t killed as many people as the distracted driving caused by smartphones and increasingly complicated multimedia interfaces.

[Image: Virrage Images/Shutterstock]

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