No, Media & Politicians — Autopilot & TACC Weren’t On In The Houston Crash

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After listening to the Tesla Q1 earnings call the other day, I wrote an article about new information that was revealed about the tragic crash that occurred near Houston, Texas. From what I had heard, it was apparent that neither Autopilot nor TACC (traffic-aware cruise control) were in use at the time of the crash, and that there was evidence that a person was in the driver’s seat.

Now, we’re seeing media reports and even statements from a politician (see below) saying that Tesla told us TACC was on, and even stretching this to mean that Autopilot was therefore on. In this article, I’m going to address this issue and explain what was really said.

What Was Said On The Call, Verbatim

When an investor asked about false or misleading media reporting, Elon Musk agreed. He said that the media reports indicating that Autopilot was on were completely false.

The key part was when Lars Moravy, VP of Engineering for Tesla, said the following:

“Regarding the crash in Houston specifically, we worked directly with the local authorities, NTSB, and NHTSA wherever applicable, and whenever they reach out to us for help directly on the engineering level and whenever else we can support.

“In that vein, we did a study with them over the past week to understand what happened in that particular crash and what we’ve learned from that effort was that autosteer did not and could not engage on the road conditions as it was designed. Our adaptive cruise control only engaged when a driver was buckled and above 5 miles per hour, and it only accelerated to 30 miles per hour over the distance before the car crashed. As well, adaptive cruise control disengaged the cars fully to complete to a stop when the driver’s seatbelt was unbuckled.

“Through further investigation of the vehicle and the accident remains, we inspected the car with NTSB and NHTSA and the local police and were able to find that the steering wheel was indeed deformed, leading to a likelihood that someone was in the driver’s seat at the time of the crash and all seatbelts post-crash were found to be unbuckled.

“We were unable to recover the data from the SD card at the time of impact, but the local authorities are working on doing that, and we await their report.”

I transcribed this myself, and went over it 5 times to make sure I got every word correct. The only thing I skipped were umms, ahhs, and a sentence fragment where Mr. Moravy restarted a sentence to be more accurate.

If you’d like to listen to the original recording yourself, you can find it on YouTube here (link goes to exact time).

No, TACC was NOT On

When I saw media outlets reporting that TACC was on based on Mr. Moravy’s statement, I initially thought I could have misunderstood it, and prepared to correct my past article on this. When I double-checked the statement to make sure my past article was accurate, I noticed several things.

Moravy indicated that they did a study to help authorities determine what happened in the accident, and went on to describe cars doing things that we know the crashed vehicle did not do. This includes:

  • Car not accelerating over 30 MPH in distance to crash (authorities say the vehicle was going a “high rate of speed”)
  • Adaptive cruise control bringing cars to a complete stop if seatbelt was unbuckled

You’ll notice that I put “cars” in bold above. That’s because we know that only one vehicle was involved in the crash in Texas. The fact that a study was conducted by Tesla engineers and that multiple vehicles were brought to a complete stop indicates that Tesla used test vehicles to make these determinations, and were definitely not describing the behavior of the doomed Tesla Model S that crashed in Texas.

The only statements Moravy made about the actual crashed vehicle were:

  • Steering wheel was deformed
  • All seatbelts were found to be unbuckled
  • Data from SD card wasn’t readable, but authorities are still working on that

Now, when we combine the test study’s findings with the information about the vehicle, we find that TACC was not likely to be engaged. Reason #1: TACC disengages if the driver’s seatbelt is unbuckled, and seatbelts were unbuckled. Reason #2: TACC (which accelerates relatively slowly on its own) only brought the vehicle to 30 MPH in the distance the crashed car traveled, and it wasn’t going that slowly.

At this point, any reasonable reading or listening of what Moravy said makes it pretty clear that he was providing evidence that TACC was NOT engaged in the Houston area crash.

TACC Alone ≠ Autopilot

It’s bad enough to not listen carefully to make sure you’re right about something before publishing, like this article did. We all make mistakes, though, and I’ve made my share, so I’m not going to beat up a bunch on people who seem to have made an honest mistake.

Intentional stretches of the truth and context robbery aren’t something we should forgive so easily, though. CBS–DFW ran a piece saying that not only did they think TACC was enabled, but that having TACC on means that part of Autopilot was on. The claim is that TACC is part of what makes Autopilot run, and that since part of Autopilot was running, that means the car was using an Autopilot feature.

This is basically the same as saying a person is wearing socks when they only have one sock on. The definition of socks is that you’ve got multiple socks on (for humans, this number is typically two). Autopilot means that TACC, autosteer, and several other features are all running together. If even one feature is not running, then Autopilot is not running, by definition.

That we have to explain simple logic like this is very disappointing.

Worse, Congressman Kevin Brady said, “Despite early claims by #Tesla #ElonMusk, autopilot WAS engaged in tragic crash in The Woodlands.” He didn’t even bother to explain the flawed logic from the CBS–DFW article, and simply said that Autopilot was engaged (which is at least two steps away from the truth). People will see his statement and say, “See, look at this authority figure! He says Autopilot was on!” So, this is a very irresponsible lie to be telling.

I’m all for hearing valid criticism of Tesla. Both the fans and the company benefit from good information, even if negative. Truth is important. That has to be the standard, and what these media figures and politician are doing ain’t it.

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 1947 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba