Tesla’s years of misleading consumers about its vehicles’ “full self-driving” capabilities — or lack thereof — claimed two more lives this month.
Two men, ages 59 and 69, died April 17 in Spring, Texas, a suburb of Houston, when the 2019 Tesla Model S in which they were riding crashed into a tree. “Riding” is the word doing a lot of work in that description: One of the two victims was seated in the luxury sedan’s front passenger seat, the other in the rear seat. Authorities confirmed that no one was in the driver’s seat when the Model S failed to negotiate a turn while traveling at high speed and struck the tree.
On Twitter, Tesla CEO and Technoking Elon Musk said that the vehicle wasn’t equipped for what the brand calls Full Self-Driving and that Autopilot was not engaged at the time of the crash.
As of press time, he had not shared his data with authorities or explained whether the driver-assistance system had been engaged earlier in the short, deadly drive.
When critics say the term “autopilot” gives the impression that the car can drive without oversight, Tesla likes to argue that that’s based on an erroneous understanding of airplanes’ systems. But the company exploits consumers’ overconfidence in that label with the way the feature is sold and promoted without correction among Tesla’s fanatical online community. Those practices encourage misunderstanding and misuse.
In public, Musk says the company is very close to full SAE Level 5 automated driving. In conversations with regulators, the company admits that Autopilot and Full Self-Driving are Level 2 driver-assist suites, not unlike those sold by many other automakers.
This nation does not have a good track record of holding manufacturers accountable when their products are misused by the public, which is what happened in this case.
But other automakers that have put advanced driver-assist systems into consumers’ hands have done so with redundant mechanisms to ensure that the tech isn’t abused. Those systems don’t allow the vehicle to operate — at any speed — without a driver at least at the wheel ready to intervene.
At this point, after this latest tragedy, all that is left to ask is: How many people must die before NHTSA steps in and finally holds Tesla accountable for its willful misrepresentations?