By: NOLAN PAGE
On Saturday, April 17 in Spring Texas, a 2019 Tesla Model S crashed into a tree, catching on fire and killing the two passengers inside. Many have been quick to suspect the Autopilot feature for this accident, but unlike other similar crashes, there was nobody at the wheel at the time of the crash. According to local authorities, they are certain that nobody was in the driver’s seat. The two victims were 59 year old Dr. Willam Varner and his 69 year old friend whose identity has not been released. When they were found after the crash, one was in the front passenger seat and the other in the back.
Before they left, their wives had previously heard them discussing going out for a drive as well as talking about the car’s Autopilot abilities, though there is still a dispute about whether Autopilot was actually turned on during the crash or not. The crash occurred after the car hit a curve in the road and failed to turn, resulting in the two victims driving at high speed into The Woodlands area, then crashing into a tree. This caused the car to catch fire starting a very significant blaze. According to the Fire Department, it took more than 32,000 gallons of water and more than four hours to extinguish the fire. The firefighters even got in contact with Tesla itself in order to seek advice on how to deal with the fire. According to the Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office, the batteries in electric cars are “generally safe” but can catch fire when involved in high speed collisions and are particularly difficult to handle because unlike a fire from a gasoline engine, batteries in electric vehicles will often re-ignite with stored energy even after being extinguished.
This is the latest in accidents raising questions about the safety of Tesla’s Autopilot features. Many have criticized the company by saying that Tesla does not make it clear enough that drivers are still needed even when the car is in Autopilot. Tesla brings up its driver’s manual on Autopilot that states, “The currently enabled features require active driver supervision and do not make the vehicle autonomous.” However, many do not think this is enough and the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board has said that, “it’s time to stop enabling drivers in any partially automated vehicle to pretend that they have driverless cars.”
Despite warnings from Tesla, improperly using the Autopilot feature has become a popular trend on social media, with some Tesla owners posting videos of themselves sleeping at the wheel or even climbing into the back seat as the car is driving on the road.
This has caused great concerns in road safety and in the past month, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has opened up investigations for 23 cases of Teslas crashing where Autopilot may have been involved. Despite this, Tesla claims that according to its data, vehicles that have Autopilot engaged are ten times less likely to get into an accident than those that do not.
Additionally, due to the fact that there was nobody in the driver’s seat when the car crashed, many have assumed that Autopilot was involved, but CEO of Tesla, Elon Musk, in lieu of the PR department that Tesla dissolved last year, insisted that it was not. He tweeted, “Data logs recovered so far show Autopilot was not enabled… Moreover, standard Autopilot would require lane lines to turn on, which this street did not have.” Even though Musk claims Tesla has the records to back this up, according to Reuters they still have not been shown to the police, who plan to serve the company with search warrants.
Despite Musk’s counter claims, Tesla stock fell three percent following the crash and the event has only caused more outcry for Tesla to make it more difficult to trick its Autopilot. Currently, driver attention is only confirmed by torque on the steering wheel and Musk has explicitly rejected plans to implement eye attention trackers or better steering sensors.