This is not good news.
Tesla has tried just about everything (besides changing the name) to get people to understand that Autopilot is not a fully autonomous driving system. Most recently, the automaker has announced that drivers who don't follow the rules will be punished for their actions, and with Volkswagen looking to overtake Tesla as the de facto ruler of electric automobiles, the last thing that Elon Musk's company needs is more bad publicity.
Unfortunately, that's exactly what Tesla is getting, and again it seems that the fault may not even lie with Autopilot but rather with a bad driver. On Wednesday in Michigan, a Tesla Model 3 driven by someone with a suspended license collided with a police patrol car.
Fortunately, no injuries were reported, either for the officers or the unnamed 22-year-old driver of the Tesla. Investigators have not yet blamed Tesla's Autopilot for the crash, and with the young man behind the wheel of the Tesla not licensed to drive, we'd be surprised to see it happen here.
Nevertheless, neither the NHTSA nor the Detroit police has yet examined the vehicle's data. Regardless, the headlines will read that another Tesla has crashed while operating with Autopilot activated, and the fact that a police car was involved will only add to the shock value that media outlets will capitalize on.
With so many traditional automakers faring well in IIHS tests conducted earlier this year, safety and security are prominent on American minds when it comes to buying a new car. Although Teslas are generally considered very safe when operated correctly, a lot of ignorance on what Autopilot is actually capable of, combined with reports like this one, will have a negative effect on public perception of the brand.
Maybe it's about time that Tesla abandons the use of the Autopilot name until it is truly a self-driving system. But with Tesla calling its latest system "Full Self-Driving" despite not actually being such a system, this seems very unlikely.