As concerns surrounding Tesla’s Autopilot feature continue to mount, however unfounded they may be, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is planning to investigate a crash involving a Tesla Model S that occurred last week in Utah. As a quick primer, a Model S with the Autopilot feature turned on slammed into the back of a firetruck while going 60 MPH. This, of course, marks the second time this year that a Tesla vehicle on Autopilot slammed into the back of a firetruck.
The good news is that the Model S driver suffered only minor injuries for such a harrowing incident, escaping with only a broken ankle. Indeed, the fact that the crash made national headlines at all seemed to really irk Tesla CEO Elon Musk who took to Twitter and said the following: “It’s super messed up that a Tesla crash resulting in a broken ankle is front page news and the ~40,000 people who died in US auto accidents alone in past year get almost no coverage.”
Musk also intimated that there should be more of a focus on how the design of the Model S kept the driver safe at such high speeds. “What’s actually amazing about this accident is that a Model S hit a fire truck at 60mph,” Musk explained, “and the driver only broke an ankle. An impact at that speed usually results in severe injury or death.”
Both of Musk’s points are well-taken, but the reality is that Tesla owners still seem to be misusing the company’s Autopilot feature. With respect to the Utah case, the driver has since conceded that she was on her phone leading up to the accident, noting that she was looking up mapping directions and only managed to return her eyes to the road right before the moment of impact.
Police in Utah said a Tesla report of the vehicle showed that the driver of the Model S enabled Autopilot about 1 minute and 22 seconds before the crash. The report said she took her hands off the steering wheel “within two seconds” of engaging the system and then did not touch the steering wheel for the next 80 seconds, until the crash happened.
Tesla’s Autopilot feature, however, still requires users to stay 100% focused on the road and is not intended, in its current incarnation, to be a substitute for driver vigilance.
Touching on this point, Tesla issued the following statement on the matter: “When using Autopilot, drivers are continuously reminded of their responsibility to keep their hands on the wheel and maintain control of the vehicle at all times. Tesla has always been clear that Autopilot doesn’t make the car impervious to all accidents.”
Once Tesla gets ahold of the car’s logs, it will be interesting to see if any warnings or alerts were conveyed to the driver in the moments before the crash.