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The statistic Tesla has been using for Autopilot safety is virtually meaningless

Tesla Autopilot NTSB data 2018

In January last year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration published a report that seemingly gave the seal of approval to Tesla’s Autopilot system. “The data show that the Tesla vehicles crash rate dropped by almost 40 percent after Autosteer installation,” the report said, a number that Tesla has repeatedly touted since then as evidence of Autopilot’s safety.

But in a statement issued yesterday, the NHTSA said that it “did not evaluate whether Autosteer was engaged” with regards to the crash data, and “did not assess the effectiveness of this technology.”

According to Reuters, the NHTSA said that it only conducted a “cursory comparison” of data that was obtained directly from Tesla, and the purpose was to see whether further investigation was necessary, not to validate the overall performance of the Autopilot system.

Although this might seem like a minor detail, the clarification is a blow for Tesla, which has been fighting a battle of public perception to emphasize that the Autopilot system is safe. The NHTSA report was a key plank in Tesla’s argument, but with the clarification that it was a “cursory comparison” using Tesla’s own data, the evidence seems a little weaker.

It doesn’t help that Tesla is currently in a bitter dispute with the National Transportation Safety Board over a more recent fatal crash involving a Tesla vehicle with Autopilot engaged. The NTSB removed Tesla as a partner from the investigation after the NTSB said that Tesla released “investigative information before it was vetted and confirmed by the NTSB.” Tesla, for its part, said it “withdrew from the party agreement with the NTSB because it requires that we not release information about Autopilot to the public, a requirement which we believe fundamentally affects public safety negatively.”