Elon Promises Safety Upgrades After Model 3 Suffers Severe Crash Using Autopilot

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You have to admire a person with a sense of humor in times of adversity. The first person to completely demolish a Tesla Model 3 did so by ramming it into the back of a fire truck at an estimated 60 miles per hour. When he decided to post about his experience on Reddit, he adopted the user name “Model 3 Crash Dummy.” His car was destroyed, as you might expect. What you might not expect is that the doors still opened and emergency workers didn’t need to use the Jaws of Life to extricate him or his passenger.

Tesla Model 3 crash

Mostly Good News

“The car is totaled but I am fine, my right ankle is swollen from hitting the gas pedal but i can still walk fine. Had this been a regular ICE vehicle I would be dead or in a lot worse condition. Everyone from the paramedics to the tow truck driver said that people don’t usually walk away from this. I already put in another model 3 reservation,” he posted on Reddit.

If there is any downside to this story, it is that the passenger hit her left arm on the center touchscreen during the collision. The touchscreen shattered and gave her a nasty gash. Because the touchscreen was inoperable, the driver was unable to open the glove box to get out his registration and insurance paperwork following the accident. Elon Musk heard about both things after they were reported by Teslarati and immediately took steps to respond to both issues.

Later, Reddit user mikhpat added these details. “The driver of the Tesla is my dad’s friend. He said that he was behind a pickup truck with AP engaged. The pickup truck suddenly swerved into the right lane because of the firetruck parked ahead. Because the pickup truck was too high to see over, he didn’t have enough time to react. He hit the firetruck at 65mph and the steering column was pushed 2 feet inwards toward him. Luckily, he wasn’t hurt. He fully acknowledges that he should’ve been paying more attention and isn’t blaming Tesla. The whole thing was pretty unfortunate considering he bought the car fairly recently (blacked it out too). Edit #1: He had some minor cuts and bruises, but nothing serious. As for the 65mph detail, the braking system could’ve intervened before the collision, but there’s no way he could tell.”

Why Didn’t Autopilot Intervene?

That last statement raises a pertinent question. After the death of Joshua Brown on a Florida highway nearly 2 years ago, Tesla dissolved its relationship with Mobileye and totally reworked its Autopilot system to de-emphasize input from cameras and make radar the primary source of data for the car’s computer. When the new Autopilot system was announced, Elon Musk made a point of saying the new system could actually “see” what was in front of the vehicle ahead. “Now if the car in front of you suddenly swerves, we’ve already seen the obstacle in front.” But what if the Tesla is following the vehicle in front really, really closely? “Even if a car had six inches clearance, it should be able to work,” Musk claimed at the time.

Wired on Thursday asked this question: “How is it possible that one of the most advanced driving systems on the planet doesn’t see a freaking fire truck, dead ahead?” Wired dug into that topic and came up with this answer: Autonomous driving systems are programmed to ignore stopped vehicles. Volvo offers a system very similar to Tesla’s Autopilot. It’s driver’s manual warns people that the system can actually accelerate into a stopped vehicle if the car ahead suddenly swerves out the way. The traffic aware cruise control will ignore the stopped car and try to get back up to the designated speed set by the driver.

The reason is that if cars went into full “anchors away” panic braking mode every time their sensors detected a stationary object in the road ahead, they would be slowing most of the time and at risk of being rammed from behind themselves. Software engineers deliberately design these systems to ignore stationary objects in order to eliminate the problem of false positives.

Tesla covers this explicitly in its owner’s manual. “Traffic-Aware Cruise Control cannot detect all objects and may not brake/decelerate for stationary vehicles, especially in situations when you are driving over 50 mph (80 km/h) and a vehicle you are following moves out of your driving path and a stationary vehicle or object is in front of you instead.”

Please Think & Drive

This is not intended to be a knock on Tesla. The Model 3 is clearly capable of protecting passengers very well indeed. But there is a disconnect between Elon Musk’s boastful claims and reality. Elon is a dynamic, forceful leader who has single-handedly created an earthquake in the automobile business. But he does let his mouth run away with him on occasion.

Words have consequences and Elon’s robust claims help lull drivers into a false sense of security. The truth is, drivers still need to be constantly vigilant at every moment when behind the wheel, Autopilot or no Autopilot — something, to be fair, Elon and Tesla have said on multiple occasions. Wired wraps up its analysis with these words: “[W]hen even the best systems available can’t see a big red big firetruck, it’s a stark reminder of how long and winding the path to autonomy actually is.”

The message is that you shouldn’t be using Autopilot or any similar self-driving software if you are not committed to remaining totally alert at all times, which sort of defeats the purpose of the whole thing. If you can’t make that commitment, at least drive a Tesla or other car with similar crash-worthy characteristics to protect your disengaged self from suffering an early demise.

Photos via Left Lane News


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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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