The landscape of automotive technology is evolving at an unprecedented pace, offering a tantalizing glimpse into a future where vehicles operate with enhanced efficiency, safety, and autonomy. This rapid progression, however, brings with it substantial and complex risks, particularly in the realm of autonomous vehicles. Tesla, positioned in the forefront of this field, recently underscored the challenges inherent in such innovation through a massive recall. While the allure of cutting-edge advancements is undeniable, the incident sheds light on the delicate balance between technological innovation and the imperative for thorough testing and risk mitigation in the pursuit of safer roads.
Tesla’s huge recall
Tesla is recalling over 2 million vehicles in the U.S. to address a defect in the Autopilot system aimed at ensuring driver attention. The recall follows a two-year investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) into crashes occurring while Autopilot, Tesla’s partially automated driving system, was in use, some resulting in fatalities. The NHTSA found that Autopilot’s method of verifying driver attention can be inadequate, potentially leading to misuse of the system.
According to NPR, “Autopilot can steer, accelerate and brake automatically in its lane, but is a driver-assist system and cannot drive itself despite its name. Independent tests have found that the monitoring system is easy to fool, so much that drivers have been caught while driving drunk or even sitting in the back seat.” Even with this in mind, “Tesla said safety is stronger when Autopilot is engaged.”
The recall covers nearly all Tesla vehicles sold in the U.S. and includes a software update with additional controls and alerts to reinforce the driver’s responsibility. Autopilot features like Autosteer may be limited based on conditions, and the update aims to improve monitoring and prevent misuse. The investigation remains open as the NHTSA monitors the effectiveness of Tesla’s remedies.
Tesla’s history fraught with peril
According to Car and Driver, “Tesla’s Autopilot software has been involved with more deaths and injuries than previously known: a total of 17 fatalities and 736 crashes since 2019, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) analyzed by the Washington Post.”
That Washington Post article reported on distinct patterns in 17 fatal crashes involving Tesla vehicles operating in Autopilot mode. The crashes revealed instances involving motorcycles and an emergency vehicle. The report questions the safety claims made by Tesla CEO Elon Musk and highlights decisions like expanding feature availability and removing radar sensors as potential contributors to an increase in incidents. The data analysis raises concerns about the technology’s real-world performance on highways, challenging the notion of a safer, virtually accident-free future promised by Musk.
With these numbers and facts in mind, that Tesla is issuing a recall like this should not be surprising, though NPR reported that Tesla did not agree with the NHTSA’s analysis when it came to explaining their “‘tentative conclusions’ about fixing the monitoring system.”
What dangers do autonomous vehicles pose?
Autonomous vehicles, heralded as the future of transportation, come with challenges and potential dangers. While proponents argue that self-driving cars can reduce human errors responsible for a majority of car accidents, critics highlight several concerns that need careful consideration.
Concerns with autonomous vehicles include:
- Technical glitches and failures. Autonomous vehicles heavily rely on complex systems of sensors, cameras, radar (though Tesla has removed radar detection systems from its vehicles), and software. Any failure or glitch in these systems can lead to accidents. Software bugs, sensor malfunctions, or unexpected system failures can compromise the vehicle’s ability to navigate safely.
- Lack of human judgment. Humans possess the ability to make split-second decisions based on nuanced situations, something that AI in autonomous vehicles may struggle to replicate. Unpredictable scenarios, such as complex traffic situations or sudden weather changes, may challenge the decision-making capabilities of autonomous systems. This is why in vehicles like Teslas where autopilot is engaged, drivers should still be paying attention in order to intervene when necessary.
- Vulnerability to hacking. With increasing connectivity, autonomous vehicles become potential targets for hackers. Breaching the vehicle’s software could lead to unauthorized control, risking the safety of passengers and others on the road. Cybersecurity measures must be robust to prevent unauthorized access and tampering.
- Mixed traffic environments. The transition period where autonomous and human-driven vehicles share the road poses challenges. Human drivers might not understand the behavior of autonomous vehicles, leading to confusion and potential accidents. Interactions with pedestrians and cyclists also require a level of human understanding that autonomous systems may find challenging. In the Washington Post article mentioned earlier, it mentions an accident between a Tesla and a child leaving a school bus. The child was struck and suffered severe injuries. Had the vehicle not been in autopilot mode, and under the control of an attentive driver, the incident may have been avoided.
While the advancement of vehicle technology is important to improving safety and convenience, this technology must not be pushed out into the public before it has been properly tested. This is especially true when it comes to allowing computers to control our vehicles.
If you were injured in an accident with an autonomous vehicle, whether it was a recalled Tesla or a different type of autonomous vehicle, it is important that you know your rights. Just like in other types of car accidents, the driver is responsible for paying attention while they’re driving, and if their neglect caused your injuries, then you are owed compensation. At Soroka & Associates, our Columbus-based legal team will put you first, and we will handle the legal process while you focus on healing. To schedule a free consultation, call our office or submit our contact form. We proudly serve those throughout Central Ohio.