The autopilot feature or Full Self-Driving (FSD) mode that comes standard on all Tesla models has long come under fire by lawmakers and regulators, with many of them citing concerns that suggest the software’s purpose is misleading and that it has not been thoroughly vetted or tested enough to even be a feature in the cars at all. However, despite concerns issued by lawmakers and numerous instances where the FSD mode was directly responsible for accidents, Elon Musk has insisted the feature remain in all Teslas. Musk’s decision to keep Tesla’s autopilot program in the cars might very well be coming back to bite him. According to The New York Times, Tesla is now under investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) after the autopilot feature caused repeated accidents, many of which involved Teslas crashing into emergency vehicles.
The NHTSA’s investigation is being centered around at least 12 incidents where Teslas that were using the autopilot mode caused accidents. Of the known incidents, 17 people were reported to be injured and one person died. The gentlemen who perished at the hands of Tesla’s autopilot mode was Florida resident Joshua Brown. Brown was using the feature when the program failed to recognize a tractor-trailer crossing the road. Brown’s vehicle collided with the side of the truck and upon impact the entire top half of the Tesla was sheered off, effectively taking Brown’s life with it.
In addition to the ongoing NHTSA investigation, families of other victims who perished in crashes not being looked into by the NHTSA but that had been allegedly caused by the Tesla autopilot program are seeking retribution in court for the role the feature had in the loss of their family members. Tesla owners are also taking the car manufacture to court on the premise that Tesla’s autopilot mode heavily misleads the operator in regards to how many aspects of driving it is actually capable of handling. Jennifer Homendy, chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board expressed “Where I get concerned is the language that’s used to describe the capabilities of the vehicle. It can be very dangerous.”
Tesla nor Elon Musk has publicly responded to the allegations being asserted by the NHTSA and others. However, in the past Musk has maintained that Tesla makes it abhorrently clear that the autopilot feature is meant to be an aid to drivers, not a replacement for the driver itself. He has highlighted that Tesla implores drivers to stay and alert, aware of their surroundings, and ready to take control of the wheel at all times.
Tesla’s assertions are important to acknowledge, and it is a likely possibility that some incidents that have occurred that have involved the autopilot feature could have been due to driver negligence. However, in a more recent case, a driver involved in an accident while using the autopilot feature attempted to take over the wheel to correct the car, but the car failed to relinquish control. The driver and their passengers thankfully were not hurt, but an instance like that certainly does raise concerns regarding a possible systemic failure within the software itself, which could pose potentially fatal consequences in the future should similar incidents occur again.
Moreover, reports have surfaced that on numerous occasions Elon Musk put his ambitions and preferences ahead of driver safety. The New York Times detailed that back in 2014 Tesla engineers urged Musk to allow them to equip the autopilot feature with additional safety measures like radar. However, Musk dismissed their suggestions and decided to forgo the radar implementation in favor of aesthetics instead.
Ultimately, at this point, it is unclear if Tesla will face consequences for the accidents that have occurred as a result of the autopilot program. But, what is certain is that Musk is still working with his team of engineers to continue to improve upon his existing program and has no intention of removing or disabling the option in any way. In fact, Elon Musk feels just the opposite and expressed at an earnings call in January of 2021 that “I’m highly confident the car will drive itself for the reliability in excess of a human this year.”