A man driving a Tesla Model X was killed in a car crash on a highway in Mountain View, California, on March 23. Afterward, the battery of the Tesla caught fire and burned in spectacular fashion for several hours. The National Transportation Safety Board has announced that it is sending a team to California to investigate the crash. That news sent Tesla stock spiraling down nearly 5%. Tesla has released a detailed statement about the crash.
We were deeply saddened to learn that the driver of a Model X vehicle involved in an accident last Friday passed away. Safety is at the core of everything we do and every decision we make, so the loss of a life in an accident involving a Tesla vehicle is difficult for all of us. Earlier this week, Tesla proactively reached out to the authorities to offer our assistance in investigating.
While we do not yet know what happened in the moments leading up to the accident, and we do not yet have any idea what caused it, here is what we do know:
Due to the extensive damage caused by the collision, we have not yet been able to retrieve the vehicle’s logs. We are currently working closely with the authorities to recover the logs from the computer inside the vehicle. Once that happens and the logs have been reviewed, we hope to have a better understanding of what happened.
Our data shows that Tesla owners have driven this same stretch of highway with Autopilot engaged roughly 85,000 times since Autopilot was first rolled out in 2015 and roughly 20,000 times since just the beginning of the year, and there has never been an accident that we know of. There are over 200 successful Autopilot trips per day on this exact stretch of road.
The reason this crash was so severe is that the crash attenuator, a highway safety barrier which is designed to reduce the impact into a concrete lane divider, had either been removed or crushed in a prior accident without being replaced. The following image shows what the barrier looked like when the crash attenuator was in proper condition, and what it looked like the day prior to the crash, based on dash cam footage from a witness of the accident who commutes daily past this location. We have never seen this level of damage to a Model X in any other crash.
Tesla battery packs are designed so that in the rare circumstance a fire occurs, it spreads slowly so that occupants have plenty of time to get out of the car. According to witnesses, that appears to be what happened here as we understand there were no occupants still in the Model X by the time the fire could have presented a risk. Serious crashes like this can result in fire regardless of the type of car, and Tesla’s billions of miles of actual driving data shows that a gas car in the United States is five times more likely to experience a fire than a Tesla vehicle.
It is worth noting that an independent review completed by the U.S. Government over a year ago found that Autopilot reduces crash rates by 40%. Since then, Autopilot has improved further. That does not mean that it perfectly prevents all accidents — such a standard would be impossible — it simply makes them less likely to occur.
Out of respect for the privacy of our customer and his family, we do not plan to share any additional details until we conclude the investigation. We would like to extend our deepest sympathies to the family and friends of our customer.
What If A Tesla Wasn’t Involved?
OK. Let’s get this out of the way right up front. If this accident involved anything but a Tesla, no one would pay any attention to it. It certainly wouldn’t be global or even national news. But because it was a Tesla, Bloomberg, USA Today, and every other major news source is giving it front page coverage. Exploding batteries have a tendency to do that. Never mind that there are a hundred or more gasoline fires in the United States every week and that almost 100 people die in highway accidents every day. The problem for Tesla is it aggressively cultivates an online presence to promote the company and its products. Live by the sword; die by the sword.
Was Autopilot At Fault?
The kicker in this story is that no one knows yet whether the Model X was operating in Autopilot mode. Because the car was heavily damaged, accessing the digital vehicle logs has been impossible. If it turns out Autopilot was enabled, then the conversation will turn to why the computer allowed the car to steer into a lane divider at highway speed. Coming on the heels of the fatal accident involving an Uber test vehicle and a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona, last week, interest in the reliability or fallibility of autonomous driving technology is very much front and center in the news.
The other subtext to this incident is that the first responders at the scene were poorly trained in how to handle a battery fire and basically stood around for an hour or two waiting for instructions. That is not a knock on the fire fighters who responded. It is meant to point out that while we tend to focus on expanding charging infrastructure for EVs, more needs to be done to educate emergency workers how to respond to the unique hazards an electric vehicle represents if it is in an accident. Tesla has prepared an extensive guide for first responders and has been proactive about training emergency workers, but that information has yet to filter down to all those who are likely to be first on the scene.
Yet another twist on this story is that Tesla knows exactly how many times one of its cars equipped with Autopilot has used this section of highway since 2015. It also knows more than 20,000 Teslas have driven by the precise point where this incident happened this year alone. How many other automakers have that extensive knowledge about how, when, and where their vehicles are used?
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