Tech companies naturally tend to overstate the bull case for what they do. The reality of what they can deliver is often less spectacular than the hype. This long read in the Washington Post (the legendary newspaper which was responsible, for – amongst other things – Richard Nixon’s downfall, and is now owned by Jeff Bezos) begins with a description of a Tesla Model Y allegedly in autopilot mode ramming into a teenager at 45mph. The article then goes to say that there have been far more crashes with Teslas in autopilot mode than previously reported:

“The crash…was one of 736 U.S. crashes since 2019 involving Teslas in Autopilot mode — far more than previously reported, according to a Washington Post analysis of National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data. The number of such crashes has surged over the past four years, the data shows, reflecting the hazards associated with increasingly widespread use of Tesla’s futuristic driver-assistance technology as well as the growing presence of the cars on the nation’s roadways.

The number of deaths and serious injuries associated with Autopilot also has grown significantly, the data shows. When authorities first released a partial accounting of accidents involving Autopilot in June 2022, they counted only three deaths definitively linked to the technology. The most recent data includes at least 17 fatal incidents, 11 of them since last May, and five serious injuries.”

So what’s going on here? Why is Autopilot not working as envisaged by Elon Musk? The Washington Post believes that there are flaws in the underlying tech: “…the data shows clear flaws in the technology being tested in real time on America’s highways.

Tesla’s 17 fatal crashes reveal distinct patterns, The Post found: Four involved a motorcycle. Another involved an emergency vehicle. Meanwhile, some of Musk’s decisions — such as widely expanding the availability of the features and stripping the vehicles of radar sensors — appear to have contributed to the reported uptick in incidents, according to experts who spoke with The Post.”

To be fair to Musk, the Washington Post points out that he had said last year that when autopilot gets deployed, every single accident it is involved in will be discussed in the media even though in totality the number of driver error related accidents would come down with autopilot: “Musk said last year.

“Because the people whose lives you saved don’t know that their lives were saved. And the people who do occasionally die or get injured, they definitely know — or their state does.””
Be that as it may, the Post cites experts who say that the numbers are stacking up against Autopilot: “Former NHTSA senior safety adviser Missy Cummings, a professor at George Mason University’s College of Engineering and Computing, said the surge in Tesla crashes is troubling.

“Tesla is having more severe — and fatal — crashes than people in a normal data set,” she said in response to the figures analyzed by The Post. One likely cause, she said, is the expanded rollout over the past year and a half of Full Self-Driving, which brings driver-assistance to city and residential streets. “The fact that … anybody and everybody can have it. … Is it reasonable to expect that might be leading to increased accident rates? Sure, absolutely.”

Cummings said the number of fatalities compared to overall crashes was also a concern.”

As you would expect, Musk is not going to back off so early in this battle: “In a March presentation, Tesla claimed Full Self-Driving crashes at a rate at least five times lower than vehicles in normal driving, in a comparison of miles driven per collision. That claim, and Musk’s characterization of Autopilot as “unequivocally safer,” is impossible to test without access to the detailed data that Tesla possesses.”

And so the battle for America’s roads rages on.

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