Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla Motors, has long touted the safety of his luxury electric cars. Then on May 7, 2016, there was a fatal accident involving a Tesla Model S car being driven on autopilot, which crashed into a tractor-trailer driving across the highway. The Tesla driver, a 40-year-old Ohio man, died. The truck driver, who survived the crash, said the Tesla driver was playing a Harry Potter movie on the Tesla’s TV screen during the collision.
Even after the fatal May accident, Tesla continued to claim that the company’s autopilot system “provided a net safety benefit to society.” In a statement issued by the “Tesla Team,” the company said that Tesla autopilot had safely been used by tens of thousands of drivers, who drove more than 100 million miles — a better safety record than that shown by worldwide accident data — and therefore “customers using Autopilot are statistically safer than those not using it at all.”
At the time, that accident was believed to be the first fatality caused by a Tesla running on autopilot. Then on September 15, 2016, another fatal Tesla Model S crash was reported in China. The accident had taken place eight months before, in January 2016. The victim’s family, who believed the car was running on autopilot, sued Tesla in July, but the story didn’t emerge in the Chinese media until mid-September. Dashcam footage from the Model S shows the car running at highway speed without slowing down when it hit a street sweeper truck, which was at the side of the road. The Tesla driver, a 23-year-old man who had borrowed his father’s car, was killed.
In the immediate aftermath of the report of the Chinese accident, Tesla released a statement saying the company had no way of knowing if the autopilot was on at the time of the accident because the car was too damaged in the accident to transmit log data.
In July 2016, an accident confirmed to involve a Model X driven in autopilot occurred on a winding two-lane highway in Montana. Neither the driver nor his passenger were injured this time, but the car lost a front wheel.
There has been a lot of controversy about how much control drivers should exert when a car is in autopilot. The Tesla manual says that drivers should stay alert and keep their hands on the steering wheel when driving in autopilot. The company said that in the Montana accident, the vehicle alerted the driver to put his hands on the wheel because of changing road conditions, but the driver, who was not holding the wheel, said the warnings were in English, which he doesn’t understand.
The chairman of Mobileye, the company that supplied autopilot sensors to Tesla at the time, said that the autopilot system was supposed to be “a driver assistance system and not a driverless system.” He also said that Tesla was sending out mixed messages about how automatic autopilot was supposed to be.
On September 11, 2016, Tesla announced a safety upgrade for the autopilot that it said very likely could have prevented the crash in May. Meanwhile, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration continues to investigate the crash, and tighter legal regulation of autopilot systems may be on the horizon.