Two separate Tesla crashes have left two dead and two injured within the space of one week. In at least one of these incidents, the company’s Autopilot feature may have been engaged, recalling earlier Tesla crashes of a similar nature and raising doubts about the safety of so-called “self-driving” vehicle technology.
Two Tesla Crashes in Two States
The most recent Tesla crashes took place within days of each other in two separate states, Florida and Utah.
On May 8, 2018, at 6:45 p.m., 18-year-old Barrett Riley was driving two passengers in his father’s 2014 Tesla Model S in the 1200 block of Seabreeze Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale, FL. The Tesla then reportedly crashed into a concrete wall and caught fire.
Riley and front-seat passenger Edgar Monserratt Martinez, 18, were trapped and killed in the burning wreck. Backseat passenger Alexander Berry, also 18, was reportedly ejected from the Tesla upon impact. He was later hospitalized in fair condition.
Fort Lauderdale Police suggested that excessive speed may have been a factor in the crash, though the department could not confirm how fast the Tesla was going, where exactly in the vehicle the fire began, or what caused the fire, cautioning that it could take months for traffic homicide investigators to reach a conclusion.
Riley had been ticketed two months earlier for speeding when a Broward County Sheriffs’ Deputy clocked the Tesla sedan traveling at 112 miles per hour, 62 miles per hour over the posted speed limit. According to his aunt, Riley’s father had Tesla restrict the vehicle’s top speed to 85 miles per hour following that incident. The maximum speed of a 2014 Tesla Model S is 155 miles per hour.
The Tesla is a fully electric vehicle that is powered by a battery, not a gasoline engine. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has dispatched a team to conduct an investigation, one which will “primarily focus on the emergency response in relation to the electric vehicle battery fire, including fire department activities and towing operations.”
According to experts, the vehicle likely contained a recorder, similar to an airplane “black box,” that should include information to help determine the cause of the collision, including the rate of speed in the final two minutes, the angle of steering, when the brakes were applied, and the state of the battery charge.
Tesla stated that it had not yet been able to retrieve logs from the vehicle, “but everything we have seen thus far indicates a very high-speed collision and that Autopilot was not engaged.”
Tesla Autopilot Engaged in Utah Crash
Tesla’s Autopilot feature had been engaged, however, prior to a crash that occurred only three days later.
On May 11, 2018, an unidentified 28-year-old driver was traveling in a Tesla Model S in South Jordan, UT, near Salt Lake City. The driver told police that the vehicle’s Autopilot feature had been turned on before she crashed at approximately 60 miles per hour into a firetruck that was stopped at a traffic light. The car sustained extensive damage, while the driver was treated for a broken ankle.
South Jordan Police said that there was no indication that the brakes were used when the car crashed. The driver admitted that she was looking at her phone immediately before the collision, and police said that she could face charges for failing to maintain the safety of her car.
Is Autopilot Safe?
Tesla’s Autopilot system uses radar, cameras with 360-degree visibility, and sensors to detect traffic and nearby objects. With this technology engaged, the Tesla has the ability to automatically change lanes, steer, and brake in order avoid collisions.
The company insists, however, that drivers have the responsibility to remain alert while using Autopilot, keeping ready to retake control of the vehicle when necessary to prevent crashes. Critics argue that the “self-driving” nature of Autopilot would lead a driver’s attention to drift more easily, thereby making sudden driver intervention less likely and limiting the safety value of the technology.
To that end, the Utah incident recalls prior Tesla crashes where Autopilot malfunctions may have yielded deadly results.
On March 23, 2018, 38-year-old Wei Huang was traveling in a Tesla Model X SUV in Mountain View, CA. Though the Autopilot feature was turned on, the vehicle crashed into a median barrier, causing it to burst into flames before being struck by two other vehicles. Huang later died from major injuries sustained in the crash. The NTSB is also investigating this incident.
On May 7, 2016, Joshua Brown, the operator of a Tesla Model S traveling on Autopilot, was killed in Williston, FL when his vehicle failed to slow down or take evasive action before crashing into a semi-trailer that was making a left-hand turn.
According to a subsequent investigation conducted by Tesla, Brown’s crash occurred because “neither Autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor-trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied.”
On January 20, 2016, in Hubei Province, China, Gao Yuning was killed when he crashed into the back of a road-sweeping truck while reportedly operating a Tesla on Autopilot. This was the first known fatal crash involving a vehicle traveling in autonomous mode.
Uber Also Under Scrutiny
The recent high-profile Tesla crashes come at an especially bad time for the company, which has been struggling to meet production targets and dealing with accusations that it has been concealing the high rates of workplace injury at its Model 3 factory in Freemont, CA. Tesla stock prices have fallen in the wake of these developments, with CEO Elon Musk announcing a “thorough reorganization.”
But Tesla is not alone in facing public doubt about the safety of its “self-driving” technology. Beleaguered rideshare giant Uber is also receiving intense scrutiny following a fatal accident that was very similar to the most recent Tesla crashes.
On March 18, 2018, a Volvo XC90 SUV outfitted with Uber’s sensing system was heading towards a busy intersection in Tempe, AZ at a reported 38 miles per hour. The Volvo was part of a test of self-driving vehicles being conducted by the company. While there was a safety driver behind the wheel, the vehicle was traveling in self-driving mode at the time. The Volvo then struck and killed Elaine Herzberg, a woman who had been crossing the street with her bicycle.
The incident is thought to be the first fatal pedestrian crash involving an autonomous vehicle, with the Uber vehicle apparently failing to make an evasive maneuver or decelerate to avoid hitting the woman.
Following the incident, Uber halted all road-testing of autonomous vehicles in the Phoenix area, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and Toronto. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey subsequently suspended the company’s ability to test self-driving cars on public roads in the state.
According to a subsequent investigative report by TheInformation.com, Uber has determined that the likely cause of the fatal collision was a problem with the software that determines how the car should react to objects that it encounters. The car’s sensors detected the pedestrian, but the software decided that it did not need to react right away.