Tesla in trouble (again): Autopilot hopes far from reality as investigation launches

September 19, 2021

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2 min read

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What's going on here?

Investigations have commenced into both Tesla’s driver-assistance system ‘Autopilot’ and the marketing practices of Elon Musk (Tesla’s founder) for his over-emphasising of Autopilot’s capabilities. This follows several road traffic accidents and calls by US Senators, government departments and independent bodies to examine the company and its technology.

What does this mean?

The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (‘NHTSA’) review of Tesla commenced following 11 crashes relating to the use of Autopilot which resulted in one death and 17 injuries. These road traffic accidents occurred due to a failure by the Autopilot system to detect parked emergency vehicles. The investigation will deal with approximately 765,000 Tesla vehicles – almost all Tesla cars sold in the US since Tesla’s 2014 model.

Autopilot is a system which utilises technologies such as radars, cameras and ultrasonic sensors to support a driver-assistance system comprising ‘Traffic-Aware Cruise Control’ and ‘Autosteer’. These functions detect nearby vehicles and road markings to keep Tesla cars on the road. 

Despite the name, Autopilot technology does not make the vehicle completely autonomous. Six levels, developed by the Society of Automobile Engineers, define the extent of such features, with level zero representing no such feature and level five representing complete vehicular autonomy. Tesla’s Autopilot system amounts to just level two.

What's the big picture effect?

Musk has been criticised for his claims that Tesla vehicles are both very close to autonomous driving and much safer than traditional cars. It is argued that such claims have contributed to certain behaviours such as individuals using it as a way to use their car whilst under the influence of alcohol, or to take a break from driving to sit in the back seat of the car with the Autopilot feature switched on. Indeed, it has been posited that the name ‘Autopilot’ is suggestive of greater capabilities than the technology offers.

Tesla representatives, however, claim that it is clear that drivers must remain behind the wheel when the Autopilot feature is on as a means to take control in the case of an emergency.

Tesla shares dropped by 2% the morning the investigation was announced. With further crashes occurring as a result of Autopilot’s failure to identify parked emergency vehicles, Tesla shares could take further hits.

Furthermore, Musk has already suffered reputational damage in a number of arenas such as trials relating to the acquisition of SolarCity (see here), controversy caused by statements about US lockdown measures (see here) and comments about Vernon Unsworth, a diver in the Thai cave rescue (see here).

Given the reputational pressure on both Musk and Tesla, it is likely that Tesla will review its product development in future Tesla models to ensure greater safety.

Report written by Edie Essex Barrett 

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