In the wake of the deadly Tesla Model X crash last month, Tesla has come under scrutiny by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) for its position of aggressive transparency with regards to sharing data about the crash as soon as it is available.
The position is in direct conflict with the requirements of the NTSB during an investigation which mandates that all parties involved not disclose information for a full year from the start of the investigation. A one year hold on the details of an investigation could leave Tesla’s Autopilot solution in limbo for customers who may be questioning the safety of the system in light of the recent accident.
In a statement, Tesla reiterated its position, “We believe in transparency, so an agreement that prevents public release of information for over a year is unacceptable.”
Tesla shared a second blog post about the accident which includes specifics about how the car reacted and attempted to alert the driver in the seconds leading up to the accident. The details in the post make it seem that while the system appears to have steered the car into the barrier, the barrier was already severely damaged from a previous accident which greatly reduced its ability to dampen the effects of a head-on collision.
In response to Tesla’s continued data disclosures about the accident, the NTSB opted to revoke Tesla’s party status in the investigation. From the official NTSB news release:
“The NTSB took this action because Tesla violated the party agreement by releasing investigative information before it was vetted and confirmed by the NTSB. Such releases of incomplete information often lead to speculation and incorrect assumptions about the probable cause of a crash, which does a disservice to the investigative process and the traveling public.”
Tesla CEO Elon Musk spoke with CBS about the recent accident, in a ride-along in a Model 3 with Autopilot engaged, starting off by addressing a common misconception about the system. “The system worked as described which is that it’s a hands-on system. It is not a self-driving system.” It is logical that the uninformed public would think that an “autopilot” system is completely hands-off but Tesla’s system is not quite there yet – nor does it claim to be.
Tesla has taken mundane cruise control to the next level with its Traffic Adaptive Cruise Control that gives its vehicles the ability to adapt to the speed of traffic, including coming to a complete stop, if necessary.
Tesla’a Autopilot one-ups that with the ability to actually steer the vehicle in situations when it can confidently detect the road based on data from its complex array of ultrasonic sensors, cameras, and GPS that are then folded in with data from the rest of the Tesla fleet to determine the best course to take. Because Tesla knows the system is not perfect, it requires that drivers still have their hands on the wheel. If hands are not detected on the wheel for more than a few seconds, the system triggers an escalating series of alarms that will eventually even pull the vehicle over to the side of the road as a safety measure.
Tesla continues to update its Autopilot system, folding in learnings from the millions of miles that are driven in Autopilot-equipped Teslas around the world. Its most recent update was well received by Tesla drivers, coming to vehicles with a completely new architecture that delivered significant improvements in Tesla’s ability to process incoming data from the many onboard sensors.
The update delivered user-noticeable improvements in performance that were well documented within hours of the public release of the firmware update, including situations where street markings were partially obscured or not visible and the handling of complex intersections.
One thing Tesla’s Autopilot has proved is that it is statistically safer than a human driver, making Tesla’s vehicles 3.7 times less likely to be in an accident resulting in a fatality…and that’s just today. Tesla continues to push the limits of what’s possible on what is proving to be the bumpy road leading to fully autonomous driving.
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