SAFETY: Tesla Says Latest AutoPilot Crash was Driver Error

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One day, self-driving cars will make our roads safer. Autonomous technology is here even now, but it’s in the very early stages and cars aren’t ready to truly drive themselves. That seems to be an area of confusion for those using Tesla’s AutoPilot feature and its resulted in several crashes.

One recent crash happened earlier this month in Montana. The driver, Mr. Pang, was perplexed about how it happened and curious as to what went wrong. His car was operating in AutoPilot mode as he drove from Seattle to Yellowstone late one night when the accident occurred.

While on a winding canyon road, the car failed to see wooden stakes at the edge of the road and hit them at a speed of around 55-60 mph. The driver and passenger were uninjured, but the car was seriously damaged. The question is whether this was some kind of operator error or if the AutoPilot feature didn’t work properly.

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One of the big areas of confusion with Tesla’s AutoPilot comes from the fact that you are required to keep your hands on the wheel. You’re not supposed to simply set it to AutoPilot and then abdicate all driving responsibility. Both Tesla and the driver of the car say he didn’t have his hands on the wheel at the time of the crash.

Lane-keeping functions provided by Acura, for example, will position a car within a lane, but also require the operator to have hands on the wheel. After 15 seconds, if the car doesn’t sense hands on the wheel, it will provide an audible alert, and then automatically turn the lane-keeping function off if the driver doesn’t respond.

Now that Tesla has had time to further investigate the incident, it released additional information that supports the idea that it was not the car’s fault. Tesla confirmed that the Autosteer feature was enabled, but that the driver did not have his hands on the wheel, which is an issue.

They also noted that it’s advised not to use Autosteer on undivided roads or at high speeds. The road in Montana was a highway with a 55 mph speed limit and it was undivided. Pang was none to happy with Tesla’s claim that it was his own fault. According to Electrek, he wrote an open letter to Tesla saying,

“Tesla never contacted me after the accident. Tesla just issued conclusion without thorough investigation, but blaming me for the crash. Tesla were trying to cover up the lack of dependability of the autopilot system, but blaming everything on my hands not on the steering wheel. Tesla were not interested in why the car veered right suddenly, nor why the car did not slow down during the crash.”

Tesla says otherwise, claiming they tried to contact Pang using a Tesla employee who is fluent in Mandarin, which is the language Pang speaks. They did speak the Monday immediately after the crash, but Tesla could not reach him later to discuss further details. The company insists they’re still trying to get in touch with Pang, and even asked in their forum for him to reach out and contact them since they’re having no luck the other way.

In a recent study by the New England Motor Press Association and MIT, drivers in particular age groups suggested that they were interested in training on how such technology works before they drive down the road with it.

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Pang doesn’t seem to deny that is hands weren’t on the wheel, but still believes there’s more to it than this mistake. Tesla is standing by its tech, saying the directions weren’t followed and that’s what caused the accident.

Nicole Wakelin

Nicole Wakelin