The New York Times went deep over the weekend on a subject that has long been talked about in this industry — Tesla’s Autopilot and its failures.
In this case, the paper of record goes in-depth and talks to people who are suing the company over crashes in which Autopilot is alleged to have failed.
The Times piece asserts something that more than a few auto journos I follow on Twitter — including, if my memory of reading his tweets is correct, one who once held the title I have at TTAC — have been screaming about for some time now. Namely, that it seems to be past time for the nation’s regulatory bodies to intervene. The paper reports that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has around a dozen open investigations into accidents involving Autopilot. It also reminds us at least three drivers of Teslas have been killed in crashes where Autopilot was engaged and didn’t detect obstacles since 2016.
NHTSA has said that at least 10 people have been killed in eight crashes involving Autopilot since 2016.
The Times piece further details how Autopilot isn’t a self-driving system and how drivers are supposed to remain aware and alert while using it — and that many don’t.
The National Transportation Safety Board says the system needs more safeguards and better driver monitoring, though we’ve worried about the privacy concerns involved in the latter in the past.
Other carmakers’ similar systems shut down if they detect the driver isn’t paying attention. We’ve also noted recently that the system seemingly can be cheated.
You might be wondering why the Times is just now seeming to cover an issue that has been covered extensively in the automotive press, and it looks to this author like the article is simply a detailed round-up of previously reported issues, one that looks into the human cost of the aftermath of some of these crashes. In other words, it reports very little new news but puts together disparate pieces of information in a one-stop shop for readers unfamiliar with the broader conversation around Tesla and self-driving.
The broader picture is this — if the Times piece has an impact with the right people among the powers that be, perhaps we could be moving closer to a future in which the regulatory bodies become more involved in making sure these systems are safe.
Tesla’s Autopilot has been controversial for several years. And its safety record is in question. Regardless of what you think of Tesla and/or Autopilot and/or autonomous driving, it seems reasonable to suggest that the brighter the spotlight shines on Autopilot (and competing systems offered by other carmakers), the more we’ll learn about the safety of it and systems like it.