Autonomous Vehicles

Published on February 28th, 2016 | by James Ayre


Tesla Autopilot Steers Car Into Barrier In Autobahn Construction Zone

February 28th, 2016 by  

Originally published on EV Obsession.

There was a recent posting on reddit where a Tesla Model S owner in Germany detailed a situation at night (and in a construction zone) where the engaged Autopilot function apparently ran him, ever so slightly, into a concrete wall with yellow reflectors on it.

While the damage was apparently minor, repair costs on Teslas can be pretty ridiculous, so I can’t imagine that the driver is too happy. I’ll say, though, of all the situations where I would decide to use Autopilot, the one described above isn’t one of them….

Here’s an excerpt from the original post:

I was driving on the A7 Autobahn in the middle of the night, heading for the ski resort in Bad Gastein when I came to a roadwork section.
I had activated the Autopilot most of the way and it was especially comfortable to use on roadwork sections because of the low speed and narrow lanes.
Normally on the Autobahn roadwork sections there are two lanes where the left lane is very narrow and the right lane is a bit wider, and since the Tesla is quite wide, I normally take the right lane. This section was a bit different because the right lane was used for an exit, so I had to use the left lane.
The Autopilot did very well for most of the section, keeping the car in the middle of the lane between the lane barrier to the left and the line to the right.
…A small concrete wall with yellow reflectors sticking out. The Tesla could clearly see the barrier all the time as shown by the side collision warnings (there were no audible warnings while the Autopilot was activated).

The barrier was of course very straight but the line was unfortunately not.
The accident happened when the lane got a bit wider (a few centimeters) and then shortly after got narrow again. Instead of driving on the line, the car swirled to the left and hit the reflectors on the barrier. I immediately deactivated the Autopilot and then the side collision warning sounds began.
There were no other cars, so there was no reason for Autopilot to prefer to hit the barrier instead of crossing the line a little bit.
…I have notified Tesla but I have yet to get a response. I hope they fix this issue.

Having seen the sorts of construction sections on the Autobahn that he’s referring to, I have to wonder why he would use Autopilot there — they’re extremely narrow.

You can see pics of the type of lane, damage, and more damage for a bit more perspective.

(Tip of the hat to “calisnow” on the TMC forum.)

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About the Author

's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy. You can follow his work on Google+.

  • Absolutely right. And I already knew your video, it is awesome, as I also made this rain experience myself in december last year. It even gets better every day on wide lanes where it only detects one side line. That’s really amazing! But it’s still not “grown up” yet ?

    • Garth Woodworth

      Thanks Birgit. Yes, it really gets better over time. We’ll have to get the Model 3, because I feel certain it will have the next gen hardware, and probably capable of being fully autonomous.

      • We are also looking forward to the Model 3 as Straubel said it will have the next gen hardware. I hope we can also order it already in Europe at the end of March…

  • Reverendrod

    1. Beta = continuously being improved…take extra caution. 2. I had an autonomous model to drive for two days and saw the same thing happen several times. Particularly in wet conditions. As instructed, I always kept my hands on the wheel and that was good, as a few times I felt the autonomous pull towards a dangerous barrier. Tighted my grip and eased back (system turns off sounding an alarm immediately – no need to turn off when correcting) 3. Truly sorry to hear about the accident and damage – never cheap to fix.

    Love the way the car “seemed to drive itself”. I made notes on what seemed to confuse the current design. Tempted to put my hands in my lap and let it go. But followed the rule (thankfully in my case….obviously I am not judging your situation) and kept a light grip on the beta autonomous process avoiding possible bad situations at least twice. Still things to be improved in the mean time.

  • tibi stibi

    these examples are an argument for google saying that only 100% automation will work. humans are not good at driving and are not good at drving 90% of the time. judging when auto pilot can work and controlling the autopilot.

  • I don’t want to go through the whole post to see if this was already said but that is exactly the reason why I am more than alert when driving through a road construction in Germany. I either deactivate the auto steer right away or I keep a tighter grip on the steering wheel to avoid any swirling. The car is 2.2 m wide with unfolded mirrors and 2 m with folded mirrors. The right lane in road constructions is mostly ideal for trucks and so for the Model S or X. Then there are always signs how wide or narrow the other lanes are, mostly it is 2.1 m or even only 2 m! In a beta version – as good and advanced it already is – it is always essential to still be a guiding help in extreme street situations like that.

    But as tests recently showed, the Model S has the most advanced autopilot by far compared to the existing BMW 7series, the Mercedes S and the Volvo which were compared and tested, all on the same track and under the same conditions. So this minor incident has to be fine tuned only and we as drivers of this advanced car have the responsibility to still be or stay alert in unusual street situations.

  • Ramon A. Cardona

    What is “lidar?” Not in my dictionary. Is this a Tesla “feature?”

    • Jenny Sommer

      Laser detection and ranging.

      Also used in wind turbines to predict gusts and optimize operation.
      Lidar are relatively expensive at the moment but are bound to get cheap and will certainly be used in cars.
      You will need more of these. One 360° lidar still doesn’t have quite the necessary resolution for fast moving objects.

  • nakedChimp

    Cool, beta testing. Surely wouldn’t like this to be my car, but someones car must do this – otherwise – how are Tesla’s going to learn from their mistakes, he?

    • As happened sadly a few times on the Autobahn A3 the last few days. All were accidents with trucks and cars or trucks and trucks. That’s why I don’t care much in constructions zones and drive right in the middle of two lanes if necessary when it gets too narrow and I look in the rear mirror just to see a way too big SUV trying to overtake the whole traffic on a much too narrow lane for his vehicle. Because then they squeeze you right into the truck or barrier next to you just to not harm their car. No way! If they get angry at me because they cannot overtake, it is absolutely their problem – not mine. They are anyway either too fast or too wide. But if I let them squeeze me to the side and maybe loose my side mirror or more, it is my problem – not theirs. So I go for my own comfort zone and don’t compromise to the anger of others anymore. It is not my heart attack – it is theirs.
      But don’t get me wrong. I just do this for my own safety in high traffic and with almost no space, then I only care for me and for my car. If I have space to let them pass, I surely will.

  • Dan Hue

    I can vouch for the fact that in construction zones, Germans will opt for narrow lanes over less of them. One needs full attention and some judgment to drive through them safely. I would not use auto-pilot in that situation.

  • Riely Rumfort

    That damage is so slight.. A skim.

    • Jenny Sommer

      And apparently about 10k$ worth…

      or you just put some putty on to fill the scretches and paint it yourself for under 100$.
      Getting the right color in cans will be tricky though.

      • Riely Rumfort

        You know most vain owners would replace everything touched.
        I on the other hand am more for function over form. Putty and paint all day. They could offer to replace it at $2K I’d still choose putty, I do art, have painter friends, we’d get close enough.

        • Jenny Sommer

          I am a used car buyer…not even putty…I use those little rust protection things to paint over little dings from stones and the like…just to stop the rust from taking out larger chips of paint.
          The paint is the least to worry about when I sell my used cars on to some Afrikan exporter for 50-250€.

          • Riely Rumfort

            It’s always funny to me some spend far more on repairs than others do for effective transport.

  • neroden

    “Autopilot” is a driver assist feature. It does NOT absolve the driver from responsibility for driving safely.

  • I really don’t think this is an issue to be fixed. That’s not a situation that he should have been using autopilot in – at least not this iteration of autopilot. The construction zones on the autobahn are ridiculously skinny. I have a feeling they do this on purpose so people slow down more. It doesn’t work very well cause people still rip through those zones at 70kmph. I remember having to swerve a bit at speed because the reflector would have smashed my side mirror. Not an autopilot situation…

    • Jenny Sommer

      That’s probably because the speed limit in a 2 lane construction narrow is usually 70kmh..

    • Garth Woodworth

      I agree, Joshua. However, Autopilot is in Beta, so using it in only the very best conditions possible does not accomplish much. We can use it where there is some challenge to it, (in this case too much challenge), so that the data sent back to the Tesla mainframe has more real-world situations to work with and the engineers then have more situations to develop for.

      • Jenny Sommer

        As I unterstand the Model S won’t be sufficiently equipped for such situations ever (maybe you can retrofit them with advanced sensors).

        • Garth Woodworth

          It could be they are able to be retrofitted – I only say that because Tesla has a history of planning for upgrades of existing equipment. The Model S Classic cannot practically be upgraded for AP hardware, but Teslas built after October 2014 might possibly have that upgrade capability.

          However, the Model S isn’t going anywhere, so there could very well be versions soon with more advanced hardware suites. I’d be very surprised if that doesn’t happen.

  • Wilibald Oplatek

    It’s not just an autopilot fail…
    Autonomous emergency braking (AEB) – fail
    Forward and Side Collision Warning and Avoidance – fail

  • JanVyt

    I do not use the autosteer on roadworks as I checked the steering quality and it did not give me the confidence it will be able to handle all situations. And that is pity, as driving on roadworks is quite exhausting and autosteering would be really welcome.

    • Tim

      What if autosteer had 10 times the processing capability, 10 times the sensor capability, and 10 times the storage (and hence 10 times the experience)? Would it work well enough then? If yes, wait 10 years and it should be there. In the meantime, follow what the manual says.

      I totally get you about construction zones being tiring – imagine if you’re 80 years old how tiring it must be then. This will be a godsend for those folks trying to visit grandkids who live in a city.

      • Jenny Sommer

        That’s true. It’s the hardware that limits the system. You need high resolution lidar to make it work.
        Those are just getting cheaper.
        The 12? ultrasonic sensors, the camera (1) and radar are not enough for fully autonomous driving.

        Fully autonomous like we need for cabs and cars without manual controls is still 10-15 years away.
        Good for all the people writing on the hype…

  • Ad van der Meer

    So Autopilot did not work in a situation Tesla says it should not be used? It’s like a truck driver looking at a height barrier without reading the height, continuing and than act surprised he hits the barrier. Darwinism at its best.

    • Tim

      I agree. Interesting engineering case – stupid driver. I hope Tesla charges him double to fix it.

      • neroden

        You can’t engineer to deal with stupid drivers.

        The fact is that it’s very hard to drive in difficult circumstances. Robots are no better than humans, because the robots are programmed by humans.

      • Jenny Sommer

        He would be stupid to let Tesla fix that minor scretches.

  • jeffhre

    Why on earth would you choose to use a system in beta – then engage where it must choose between going across a solid painted lane line with no turn signals engaged, and making contact with a construction barrier? It sounds like the system tried a little bit of each to resolve the conflict!

    • Autopilot is not in beta.

      • jeffhre

        When released Tesla said beta; if true I stand corrected.

  • Ed

    I agree with Pinewood: The current forward sensor is just a single camera, with no depth information possible. A true lidar system or lidar Imager or stereo imager is probably a next step to improve system accuracy at reading the environment ahead of the vehicle. Regardless, this sure sounds like a situation where the driver should have taken control as soon as he spotted the construction zone.

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  • markogts

    Well, you complain about the width of german lanes… please come to Italy. Where they put 30km/h limit in order to keep people driving at 70 (below 40km/h delta the fines are small, especially if you have the money for a Tesla). Limit that remains there forgotten long after the roadwork is over. Yellow lanes mixing on former white ones. Dirt hiding all of the above.

    Come on, if “they” (insurances, government and carmakers) don’t dare to allow an autonomous people carrying plane, in a supercontrolled and certified environment as the aeronautic one, how can you hope “they” will accept to bear responsibility in such a mix of unknown drivers, unknown road conditions and unknown AI behavior? Problem is not who drives, but who goes to jail when things won’t work as expected. The advantage of leaving it to the driver is that road owner and carmaker always have a scapegoat. This, as plenty of similar cases, will be funny to follow in courtrooms. The easily foreseeable end: a new roadsign for “autopilot forbidden”. People will of course use the AP anyway, but won’t be able to claim damage in case of accidents.

    • Michael Brestel

      “They” do allow autonomous planes. Its called…. AUTOPILOT. Where do you think Tesla got the name? All the Pilot does is take off, land, and chat with air traffic control, and you know, be there to take over in emergencies. Same for these Tesla’s. The Driver is still responsible for controlling his car. If the driver is negligent, then the driver is at fault regardless of what the AI decided to do. The current systems are all very clear about this. The law is clear, the contracts are clear, hell a Tesla even pulls over and stops if you don’t grab the steering wheel every few minutes. There is nothing ambiguous here for the parties actually involved. The only confusion comes from people on the sidelines who just don’t know any better.

      Regarding future systems without human driver responsibilities:
      A — Thats a pretty long way off, even if a few companies (google at least) are lining up the regulatory approvals for testing, actual deployment is not just around the corner.
      B — It will only happen after many billions of miles of “Autopilot” type driving has been analyzed by “Them”. Each will make the same decision: is it in my own best interest to embrace this, or reject it. Very simple. If it makes the insurance companies money, they approve it. If it improves the public safety, or saves the government money, or whatever political calculus is dominate, they will approve it.
      C — If liability falls to the car manufacturer, they will just build their expected costs into the price of the car. If they are significantly safer after billions of miles of testing, it wont matter. If they aren’t, the cars will be crazy expensive and no one will buy them. No skin off your back either way.
      D — If anything, there will eventually be signs that read “Autopilot only”

      • markogts

        Airplane autopilot is the equivalent of the cruise control. It doesn’t make decisions. Is not AI, is just PID. All decisions are demanded always to the pilots, (who, by the way, have this nice feature of dying in case of crash. Perfect scapegoats 😉

        For the rest, I will be happy to be proven wrong (I’d love to see my aging parents “drive” safely for years to come). But I just can’t understand all this enthusiasm and faith in autonomous driving.

        • Michael Brestel

          No faith needed, no enthusiasm needed. That’s the point! All you have to do not reject it out of ignorant fear and wait for mountains of data to come in while glorified adaptive cruise controls gather safety statistics. The driver still has ALL of the responsibility for safely driving his car, and will retain that responsibility until such time as more advanced systems have proven themselves to be superior drivers after literally billions (if not trillions) of miles of real life driving.

          In 2014 (most recent year for full data @ there were 3 Trillion miles driven by vehicles (just USA) and over 32000 deaths. If autonomous driving can cut that by 1/3 and save even 10000 lives a year, isn’t that worth exploring?

          • markogts

            Until there isn’t a shift in responsibility, too much automation may make things worse, increasing distraction and misunderstandings. If I am responsible, I want to know in advance when the auto-something will give up. If I only have tenths of second to react after half an hour of doing-nothing cruise, then rather do all the 1800 seconds on my own.

            And my bet is that there will never be a shift in responsibility, we simply have too many lawyers around. From my side, it’s not ignorance of technology, rather some understanding of human nature.

  • Kyle Field

    The fact that he said it would be better for the car to go over the line than to hit the wall tells me that there was little to no space for the car in the lane (between the barrier and the line). Sounds like a bad place to use a system still in development though to be fair, autopilot does need to be able to deal with situations like this…

    An unfortunate part of the learning curve. Thankfully nobody was hurt.

    • Frank

      I hope Tesla looks at it. The data should be very interesting to those guys doing the development.

  • Philip W

    As you’ve said, construction zones can be very very narrow in Germany. So it’s predictable that Autopilot can have trouble in construction zones. I cannot understand why he didn’t take control on that part.

    • kvleeuwen

      I think that the driver assumed that the sensors would do a better job at assessing the width of the car and the width of the road than his human eyes.
      Which proves again that assumption is the mother of all …

      • Philip W

        The sensors DO a better job than a human in measuring the distance between car and the wall, the width of the road etc., but they only provide the values. The problem is the software in beta stage that can behave unpredictably in assessing the situation.

      • Karl the brewer

        “Which proves again that assumption is the mother of all …”

        Is it these guys?

  • Pinewold

    This is where lidar accuracy is better, clearly the tolerance here is less than a centimeter. Hopefully Tesla will have good data to learn how to avoid the issue next time. Having travel on European roads, their tollerence for narrow spaces is remarkable, I never understood the need for folding mirrors until I drove in Europe.

    • jeffhre

      I wonder if his mirrors were folded – does auto pilot fold them for you?

      • Jenny Sommer

        The roads are really not that small. Even 35t trucks have to fit through them…

        • jeffhre

          …and the mirrors, LOL!

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