Tesla is in the news again due to a crash involving the company’s self-driving software. According to reports, a Tesla on Autopilot this past Saturday just so happened to crash into a Florida police car. The driver of the Tesla, who is disabled, experienced minor injuries. The Florida state trooper, however, suffered no injuries. Details surrounding the incident are still emerging, but it’s no surprise that the story is already garnering a lot of attention.
Even though Teslas are statistically safer than other vehicles, any incident or accident involving a Tesla tends to make national headlines. This can likely be attributed to the larger-than-life personality that is Elon Musk. If Tesla, for example, issued a recall for every vehicle it ever sold — similar to what recently happened with the Chevy Bolt — the story would dominate the headlines. Additionally, because many people still distrust Tesla’s Autopilot software, any story involving an Autopilot crash understandably attracts attention.
What we know about the latest Tesla Autopilot crash
A Tesla Model 3 crashed into a parked police car this past Saturday. The fact that the police car was parked is noteworthy because this is a common thread in Tesla Autopilot accidents. For example, a Tesla Model S in China a few years ago crashed into a broken-down car on the shoulder of a highway. As evidenced by the video below, you’ll notice that the car in front of the Tesla veers to the right. The Tesla on Autopilot, however, did not.
With respect to the current crash, The Associated Press adds:
A Tesla using its partially automated driving system slammed into a Florida Highway Patrol cruiser Saturday on an interstate near downtown Orlando and narrowly missed its driver, who had pulled over to assist a disabled vehicle.
The trooper whose cruiser was hit shortly before 5 a.m. Saturday had activated his emergency lights and was on the way to the disabled vehicle when the Tesla hit the cruiser’s left side and then collided with the other vehicle, highway patrol spokeswoman Lt. Kim Montes told The Orlando Sentinel.
The NHTSA is already looking into similar incidents
Tesla over the years has probably been too effusive when it comes to touting the capabilities of its Autopilot software. And while the feature can sometimes work like magic, it’s certainly not without its limitations. Indeed, detecting and avoiding stationary objects appears to be an ongoing issue.
The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration earlier this month said it would launch an investigation into the “technologies and methods used to monitor, assist, and enforce the driver’s engagement with the dynamic driving task during Autopilot operation.”
A big part of the investigation will focus on 11 incidents. In each incident, a Tesla on Autopilot crashed into a parked vehicle.
As Consumer Reports notes: “Most of these crashes took place after dark, and they involved crash or construction scenes with flashing emergency lights or other traffic control measures blocking or parked next to the road.”
Note that a 2016 NHTSA report found that Tesla vehicles on Autopilot are safer. However, there has been an uptick in crashes due to an increase in the number of Teslas on the road in recent years.
One of the major problems with Autopilot isn’t necessarily the software itself. Rather, it’s that people tend to think the software is more capable than it really is. This is likely due to hyperbolic claims about the feature from Musk himself. Indeed, Tesla over the past few years has implemented more safeguards around the feature. Tesla now says that only fully attentive drivers should use the feature. Further, Tesla drivers now must keep both hands on the wheel when using Autopilot. When drivers do not follow the rules, the Tesla will play an alert. Autopilot will ultimately deactivate if a driver does not adjust.