The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is downgrading the Tesla Model 3 and Y following the company’s decision to remove radar from its advanced driver-assistance suite. We wrote about it, noting that the change actually removed several features from the affected cars and introduced the activation of another creepy, driving-monitoring camera.
While the latter aspect warranted the most cursing from your author’s side of the laptop, it’s the former that’s seeing the lion’s share of debate among groups advocating for vehicular safety. Everyone wants to blame Tesla’s overreliance on cameras as the thing contributing to high-profile crashes when there’s nary a vehicle on this planet that’s truly capable of driving itself. But that hasn’t stopped the NHTSA from slapping affected Tesla models into their own category, noting that they lack several functions it deemed important for safety. It’s all relative, considering there are millions of vehicles on the road that don’t have any advanced driving aids to speak of and heaps of evidence that electronic nannies don’t always function as intended. But it’s earning Tesla bad publicity as it gets dinged by increasingly more safety groups.
According to the manufacturer, swapping to “Tesla Vision” is supposed to temporarily restrict certain Autopilot features. For example, adaptive cruise control distances have increased and Autosteer is now limited to 75 mph. But it also is screwing with automatic emergency braking and lane-departure warnings, which are a big problem for safety groups that have been singing their praises.
Reuters reported that the NHTSA has split the Model 3 and Model Y into two camps where 2021 MY cars are now considered early or late release based upon whether or not they have radar equipped. Obviously, late models are getting a frowny face on their safety report and that’s likely to carry over when/if Tesla decides to strip radar from its larger vehicles.
The move came amid growing scrutiny by regulators and media coverage about the safety of what Tesla dubs “Autopilot” and “Full Self-Driving (FSD)” features, following a series of crashes.
While most companies like Alphabet Inc’s (GOOGL.O) Waymo equip autonomous cars with cameras paired with sensors like lidars and radars, Tesla relied on cameras and one radar to detect and analyze objects.
Tesla’s approach helped reduce costs and commercialize its driver assistant features, but experts and other companies have raised safety concerns.
Tesla said the transition to a camera-focused system may result in limitations of some features such as lane-centering and parking assistance, functions which it said will be restored via software updates “in the weeks ahead.”
But it wasn’t just the NHTSA that had gripes. Consumer Reports (CR), which has always seem to go hard on Tesla, announced that it would be dropping the Model 3 from its Top Safety Pick status — noting that the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) was already on board with the downgrade. But the rationale had nothing to do with testing the cars or assessing whether or not Tesla Vision managed to pick up the slack of the absent radar system. Instead, CR simply noted that the government safety agency had some issues with the changes, and vehicles “may lack some key advanced safety features.”
They’re likely correct and Tesla basically admitted as much in its initial release on the updated status of its driving suite. But the joint release kind of makes the whole safety scene seem slightly incestuous.
“If a driver thinks their vehicle has a safety feature and it doesn’t, that fundamentally changes the safety profile of the vehicle,” said David Friedman, VP of advocacy for Consumer Reports and a former acting administrator of the NHTSA. “It might not be there when they think it would save their lives.”
That’s kind of the problem with functional driving aids, too. There’s mounting evidence that advanced driving aids are turning people into horrendously complacent motorists and frequently misfire, occasionally creating all new problems for drivers. But apparently, it’s only AAA that’s worried about that. Just about every other safety organization had decided the more nannies crammed into a vehicle, the better. Consumer Reports won’t even consider a vehicle worthy of Top Safety consideration unless it has forward-collision warning with automatic emergency braking. And yet it probably won’t matter one whit if those systems fail and the car slams into a vehicle thrice its size.
But we’re sympathetic. Testing requires serious resources and plenty of time. There’s also no easy way to update busy consumers on changes in a subtle and nuanced manner. So everyone’s understandably downgrading Tesla vehicles for de-contenting its vehicles. We would just caution you against assuming alternative systems are going to be dramatically better. Only a few outfits have started doing comprehensive appraisals of partially automated driving systems and even CR has confessed that their very existence fixes some problems while introducing entirely new safety risks.
But it still thinks all cars could benefit from them. The most we can say is that there are situations where they would certainly be a blessing and incidents where they’ve proven to be a curse.
[Image: Working Title Productions/Shutterstock]