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Tesla's Autopilot Lacks A Serious Crash Prevention Feature

Crash / 11 Comments

Another fatal crash uncovers limitations in both Autopilot and in the way drivers understand the system.

The Tesla Model 3 may be one of the safest cars on the planet, but that doesn't mean it's not possible for owners to get into an accident with one and be left with serious injuries…or worse. That risk is one all drivers take any time they get behind the wheel, but things get more complicated when the car itself is doing the driving.

That's why a preliminary report released by the National Transportation Safety Board regarding a fatal Tesla Model 3 crash in Florida is worth a look. The report mentions that the crash took place at around 6:17 am on March 1st, 2019 when a 2018 Tesla Model 3 driving southbound on State Highway 441 near Palm Beach County, Florida struck a semi-truck traveling east.

Much like the first fatal crash involving a Tesla with its Autopilot system engaged, the Model 3 was traveling down the highway while the semi-truck was crossing the road heading east towards a divide in the median that would allow the truck to turn left and head north on the 441.

The report says that ten seconds before the crash, the 50-year-old man driving the Model 3 engaged the car's Autopilot function. A little less than 8 seconds before impact, the driver of the Model 3 took their hands off the wheel and never put them back on. At no point did the Model 3 make any attempt to stop or get out of the Semi's way before the two vehicles made contact.

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The Tesla struck the side of the semi's trailer, killing the driver. Given that the Model 3 is too low for the five-star-rated crash structures under its hood to make contact with the high trailer, it "under-rode" the container. That means the A-pillars, which aren't required to be reinforced in any vehicle in case of crashes like this, struck the trailer first and let the underside of the trailer sheer off the Tesla's roof like it was a tin can. Crashes like this are usually fatal, but they don't happen often because a driver seeing a semi truck pulling out would usually slam on the brakes and stop before impact.

We're just inferring here, but it's very likely the driver put the Tesla on Autopilot and took his eyes off the road for one reason or another. His trust in the Model 3's Autopilot system overlooked the fact that the car's radar and ultrasonic sensors, like the front-end crash structure, look too low and don't always "see" something as high as a semi's trailer.

And if the trailer's side was painted a color that matched the sky (a white trailer can look like a grey sky), the front-end cameras may not have seen the danger either. Autopilot also may not have sounded a warning for the driver to put his hands back on the wheel during the 8 seconds they were off of it, meaning there's a chance the driver had no idea what was coming.

The NTSB is still investigating the crash, but our guess is that these accidents will continue to take place unless Tesla's Autopilot hardware is upgraded to see dangers like this, until Tesla modifies the software to alert drivers to put their hands back on the wheel sooner, or until drivers of vehicles with similar semi-autonomous features are thoroughly educated on the limits of these systems.

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