Auto-nav­i­gate needs work

A se­ries of fa­tal crashes high­lights is­sues with Tesla’s most promis­ing fea­ture

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Front Page - By Ron Hurt­ibise and Linda Trischitta

We are all Tesla’s beta testers. Sev­eral of Tesla’s vaunted au­to­mated nav­i­ga­tion fea­tures are la­beled on its cars’ touch screens and owner’s man­u­als as be­ing in “beta” phase, in­clud­ing “Au­tosteer,” “Nav­i­gate on Au­topi­lot” and “Traf­fic Aware Cruise Con­trol.”

In other words, Tesla — the fo­cus of three deadly crashes in South Florida — re­mains a work in progress.

De­spite their pre­mium pric­ing, the speedy, high-tech cars are a hot com­mod­ity and grow­ing rapidly within their home state of Cal­i­for­nia and be­yond. Sales tripled in Florida and nearly quadru­pled in the U.S. be­tween 2017 and 2018 as the com­pany in­tro­duced more af­ford­able mod­els and ramped up pro­duc­tion.

Crit­ics rave about the cars’ power and ease of use and for­give grow­ing pains that have earned the brand low re­li­a­bil­ity scores

from Con­sumer Re­ports. Yet, Tes­las also con­sis­tently earn five-star safety rat­ings in crash tests by the Na­tional High­way Traf­fic Safety Ad­min­is­tra­tion and five-star owner loy­alty scores from Con­sumer Re­ports.

In an April 2018 re­view of Tesla’s new­est of­fer­ing, the Model 3, au­to­ writer John Beltz Sny­der wrote that the car “is proof that EVs [elec­tric ve­hi­cles] — even the rel­a­tively af­ford­able ones — are far more than just ap­pli­ances. This is a car that stirs up emo­tions when driv­ing it, and the fact that it does that well is a great thing, not just for cus­tomers, but for the en­tire im­age of clean cars.”

It’s be­cause of that en­thu­si­asm, and the car’s sta­tus as the van­guard of an all-elec­tric, net­work-driven, au­to­mated trans­porta­tion fu­ture, that so much scru­tiny is paid to mi­nor glitches and spec­tac­u­lar fail­ures alike.

A car un­like any other

Formed in 2003, Tesla set out to create a com­pany and car un­like any other. In­stead of gas-pow­ered en­gines or gas-and-elec­tric hy­brids, Tesla’s cars would be run by pure elec­tric propul­sion, which re­quires a sim­pler me­chan­i­cal ar­chi­tec­ture and costs far less per mile to run.

Tesla mod­eled it­self more like a soft­ware com­pany than a car maker, charg­ing up­grade prices for such pre­mium fea­tures that can be ac­ti­vated through up­dates down­loaded from the In­ter­net, in­clud­ing Au­topi­lot and, in the base Model S, ex­panded bat­tery ca­pac­ity for longer driv­ing range be­tween charges.

Au­topi­lot and its con­nected fea­tures make Tes­las semi-au­tonomous — mean­ing its sen­sors and cam­eras can read road mark­ings and sur­round­ing ve­hi­cles and per­form func­tions such as chang­ing lanes, ap­ply­ing brakes, and fol­low­ing the straight lines and curves of roads. But driver vig­i­lance is still re­quired to take over tasks the sys­tem can’t han­dle, and de­spite Tesla’s prom­ise to un­veil “full self driv­ing” ca­pa­bil­ity later this year, ex­perts say a fully-au­tonomous Tesla — or any car — that doesn’t re­quire its oc­cu­pants to pay at­ten­tion to the road is still years away.

Af­ter in­tro­duc­ing its first car in 2008 — the high­priced, low-vol­ume Road­ster — the com­pany en­tered the sub-$100,000 mar­ket in

2012 with the Model S sedan. The Model X SUV was in­tro­duced in 2015, fol­lowed by the com­pact and more af­ford­able Model 3 in


Even as its ap­peal grows in Florida, Tesla’s mar­ket share here is still mi­nus­cule.

While new Tesla reg­is­tra­tions na­tion­wide in­creased from 46,001 in 2017 to 163,771 in 2018, sales in Florida grew at a lesser rate — from 2,866 in 2017 to 8,797 a year later, ac­cord­ing to re­search firm IHS Markit. That’s fewer than one out of ev­ery hun­dred of the 1.3 mil­lion new ve­hi­cles reg­is­tered in Florida in 2018, the firm’s data shows.

One thing Tesla own­ers like: The cars are sports-car fast, able to go from zero to

60 mph in around five sec­onds. That can lead to trou­ble — three-quar­ters of

9,000 Tesla own­ers in the Netherlands were fined for speed­ing in 2017 com­pared with 28 per­cent of gas-pow­ered car driv­ers, the elec­tric ve­hi­cle web­site Elec­trive .com re­ported.

South Florida crashes

In South Florida, au­thor­i­ties and pre­sum­ably Tesla are still in­ves­ti­gat­ing the three fa­tal crashes, one in­volv­ing ex­ces­sive speed, and two in­volv­ing flam­ing bat­ter­ies. Whether Au­topi­lot played a role in any of them re­mains un­clear.

May 2018, Fort Laud­erdale: Two high school stu­dents were killed and an­other was in­jured af­ter the 2014 Model S they were in went out of con­trol on a curve at more than 100 mph. It twice struck a con­crete wall and then a light post. A wit­ness said the car burst into flames af­ter the sec­ond col­li­sion. Small por­tions of the car’s lithium ion bat­tery A mod­i­fied 2016 Tesla Model S crashed and burst into flames, killing the driver, in Davie on Feb. 24. The ve­hi­cle caught fire again the next morn­ing from a rup­tured bat­tery.

broke apart from the ve­hi­cle, which reignited twice af­ter the crash, in­ves­ti­ga­tors found.

The own­ers of the car had it mod­i­fied so it could not travel faster than 85 mph, but the de­vice that would limit the car’s speed was re­moved by an em­ployee at a Tesla dealer with­out the own­ers’ con­sent, ac­cord­ing to a law­suit filed in Jan­uary. The ques­tion re­mains: Why did the bat­tery rup­ture and ex­plode?

Fe­bru­ary 2019, Davie: A

2016 Model S left the road “for an un­known rea­son” on the af­ter­noon of Feb. 24, swerved through three lanes of traf­fic, hit a me­dian and palm tree and burst into flames, Davie po­lice said. The driver was trapped in­side and died. Wit­nesses said the driver was speed­ing, but a po­lice re­port stated the car had been trav­el­ing at the

50 mph speed limit. Whether the driver was us­ing the car’s ad­vance driver sys­tem, or “Au­topi­lot,” may not be known for months. Like af­ter the Fort Laud­erdale crash, that car’s bat­tery reignited sev­eral times, de­spite the com­pany’s in­sis­tence that its bat­tery packs are 10 times less sus­cep­ti­ble to fire than gas cars.

March 2019, west of Del­ray Beach: A 2018 Model 3 driven south on State Road 7 in west Del­ray on March 1 slid un­der a trac­tor trailer that was turn­ing north onto the di­vided high­way. It’s not yet known whether the Tesla’s Au­topi­lot or au­to­matic

emer­gency brak­ing sys­tem were en­gaged at the time, but the crash evoked com­par­isons to a fa­tal col­li­sion be­tween a Tesla Model S op­er­at­ing un­der Au­topi­lot and a trac­tor-trailer that had pulled into the driver’s path in Wil­lis­ton, Fla., near Gainesville, in May 2016.

The crashes in Fort Laud­erdale and west Del­ray sparked in­ves­ti­ga­tions by the Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board, which in­ves­ti­gated the 2016 Wil­lis­ton crash. The west Del­ray crash also is un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion by NHTSA, which has au­thor­ity to create safety reg­u­la­tions, ed­u­ca­tion pro­grams and is­sue re­calls.


The NTSB, though bet­ter known for prob­ing crashes in­volv­ing air­planes, pipe­lines, ships and trains, also has au­thor­ity to in­ves­ti­gate road­way crashes and is­sue non-bind­ing rec­om­men­da­tions based on its find­ings. Ac­cord­ing to its web­site, the agency “in­ves­ti­gates se­lect high­way crashes that can ad­vance knowl­edge of broad or new safety is­sues.”

NTSB in­ves­ti­ga­tions of re­cent Tesla crashes in­volve two such ar­eas of in­ter­est — the cars’ au­to­mated ve­hi­cle con­trol sys­tems and bat­tery fires.

Two of the crashes in­volve cars in Cal­i­for­nia re­port­edly op­er­at­ing un­der Au­topi­lot. One hap­pened in March 2018 n Moun­tain View when a Model X SUV left the road and crashed into a high­way guardrail, killing the driver. The other in­volved a Model S that rearended a stopped fire truck in Cul­ver City in Jan­uary 2018.

The bat­tery fire in­ves­ti­ga­tions, in ad­di­tion to the one that fol­lowed the 2018 Fort Laud­erdale crash, also stem from crashes in Cal­i­for­nia. In June 2018, the driver of a 2014 Tesla Model S in West Hol­ly­wood safely es­caped be­fore the bat­tery pack caught fire, en­gulf­ing the ve­hi­cle. The other fire oc­curred in Au­gust 2017 in Lake For­est when the driver lost con­trol of his car and slammed into the garage of an el­derly cou­ple’s home.

NTSB spokesman Christo­pher O’Neil said the in­ves­ti­ga­tions are fo­cused on is­sues con­nected to elec­tric ve­hi­cles and not on Tesla or any spe­cific man­u­fac­turer.

An in­ves­tiga­tive re­port on chal­lenges that elec­tronic ve­hi­cles’ bat­tery fires pose for first re­spon­ders could be re­leased by early fall, O’Neil said. “I would as­sume there are go­ing to be safety rec­om­men­da­tions in that re­port,” he said.

An­other re­port on per­for­mance of driver-as­sist tech­nolo­gies and what lessons are be­ing learned from the ac­ci­dents in Moun­tain View and Cul­ver City could be re­leased by the end of the year, he said. Those lessons will stem from the Tesla crashes in Moun­tain View and Cul­ver City, he said. Whether find­ings from the west Del­ray crash will be in­cluded is not yet known, he said.

Lessons learned

The NTSB’s fi­nal re­port on the 2016 Wil­lis­ton crash fo­cused on lim­i­ta­tions of the Au­topi­lot sys­tem and driv­ers’ re­spon­si­bil­i­ties to re­main alert and re­strict use of the sys­tem to lim­ited ac­cess, di­vided high­ways.

While Au­topi­lot can rec­og­nize and brake for slow, stopped and de­cel­er­at­ing ve­hi­cles trav­el­ing ahead of a Tesla in the same lane, it is not de­signed to re­act to ve­hi­cles, such as the trac­tor­trailer, cross­ing or mak­ing left turns across the Tesla’s path, the re­port said.

So while the col­li­sion did not re­sult from a mal­func­tion of Au­topi­lot, Tesla

failed to im­ple­ment safe­guards to pre­vent the car’s driver from be­com­ing dis­en­gaged and over-re­ly­ing on Au­topi­lot, the NTSB said.

Tesla’s owner’s man­ual, the NTSB re­port notes, rec­om­mends driv­ers use Au­topi­lot on lim­ited-ac­cess road­ways, which are typ­i­cally di­vided roads, such as in­ter­state high­ways, with no in­ter­sec­tions or cross­roads and that have en­try ramps that en­sure all ve­hi­cles are trav­el­ing in the same di­rec­tion.

But avail­abil­ity of Au­topi­lot is not re­stricted to such roads, and so noth­ing stopped the driver in the Wil­lis­ton crash from us­ing the sys­tem on U.S. High­way 27A, which is not a lim­ited ac­cess road.

Af­ter the crash, Tesla mod­i­fied Au­topi­lot to alert driv­ers more fre­quently to keep their hands on the steer­ing wheel. Af­ter three warn­ings, the car must be restarted to reen­gage Au­topi­lot.

That wasn’t enough for the NTSB, which rec­om­mended that mak­ers of cars with semi-au­tonomous driver sys­tems limit use of such sys­tems to “con­di­tions for which they were de­signed.”

“Joe and Suzy Pub­lic,” wrote NTSB board mem­ber Christo­pher A. Hart in the Wil­lis­ton re­port, “may con­clude from the name ‘au­topi­lot’ that they need not pay any at­ten­tion to the driv­ing task be­cause the au­topi­lot is do­ing ev­ery­thing.”

Tesla has not an­nounced any ac­tion taken to com­ply with the NTSB’s rec­om­men­da­tion.

Wire­less ‘black boxes’?

The com­pany also de­clined to an­swer any ques­tions from the South Florida Sun Sen­tinel about any crashes in­volv­ing its ve­hi­cles, in­clud­ing whether any Tesla crash has been found to re­sult from mal­func­tion of its Au­topi­lot or op­er­at­ing soft­ware.

Among those ques­tions were whether logs of ac­tions by driv­ers and the cars stream to the com­pany’s servers at all times, giv­ing it in­stant ac­cess to crit­i­cal pre­crash in­for­ma­tion even if a car’s com­puter is de­stroyed by fire.

Af­ter the May 2018 Fort Laud­erdale crash, po­lice re­cov­ered the car’s “re­straint con­trol mod­ule,” which con­trols airbag de­ploy­ment and records the driver’s speed and be­hav­iors lead­ing up to the crash.

But af­ter the Davie crash, po­lice de­ter­mined the fire ren­dered the car’s data stor­age units un­read­able, mean­ing the only way au­thor­i­ties can de­ter­mine whether the driver was speed­ing or us­ing Au­topi­lot when his car left the road would be if that data was streamed to Tesla’s servers be­fore the crash.

Tesla: Safest cars ever tested

In lieu of an­swer­ing ques­tions about safety mea­sures it has un­der­taken, Tesla pro­vided links to in­ter­nal blogs and in­for­ma­tion sheets as­sert­ing that its driver as­sis­tance tech­nol­ogy helps en­sure the safety of every­one on the road.

“And be­cause ev­ery Tesla is con­nected, we’re able to use the more than 10 bil­lion miles of real-world data col­lected by our global fleet — of which more than 1 bil­lion have been driven with Au­topi­lot en­gaged — to con­stantly im­prove our prod­ucts,” one of the blogs states.

Say­ing that me­dia re­ports of its crashes were overblown, Tesla last fall be­gan re­leas­ing quar­terly crash fre­quency statis­tics for its cars. In the fourth quar­ter of 2018, just one ac­ci­dent was recorded for ev­ery 2.91 mil­lion miles driven with Au­topi­lot en­gaged com­pared to one ac­ci­dent for ev­ery 436,000 miles for all cars na­tion­wide, its blog says.

In crash tests dat­ing to

2013, Tesla’s have achieved per­fect 5-star rat­ings from NHTSA, prompt­ing Tesla to claim on its blog that its mod­els S, X, and 3 are the safest ever tested by the agency. NHTSA last fall dis­puted Tesla’s “safest-ever” claim, say­ing it went be­yond the scope of its analy­ses.

Tesla’s claims about the safety of its bat­tery com­part­ments might raise an eye­brow among first re­spon­ders to two of the South Florida crashes.

Af­ter the Fort Laud­erdale crash, the com­pany sent the South Florida Sun Sen­tinel a pre­vi­ously re­leased state­ment say­ing its ve­hi­cles are

10 times less likely to ex­pe­ri­ence a fire than a gas car.

It said when fires do oc­cur, they are “safer” be­cause they con­sist of thou­sands of in­di­vid­ual cells — sim­i­lar to AA bat­ter­ies used in con­sumer elec­tron­ics — di­vided into groups placed in sep­a­rate mod­ules with fire­walls be­tween the mod­ules and “then again be­tween the bat­tery pack and the pas­sen­ger com­part­ment.”

Each mod­ule is sealed to pre­vent gas and heat from ig­nit­ing its ad­ja­cent mod­ule, so that “in the rare cir­cum­stance a fire oc­curs, it spreads much more slowly than in a gas fire, al­low­ing more time for oc­cu­pants to es­cape the ve­hi­cle,” the state­ment said.

Yet in the Fort Laud­erdale and Davie crashes, fires quickly en­gulfed the ve­hi­cles, pre­vent­ing ef­forts to res­cue their oc­cu­pants. In the Davie crash, the car was en­gulfed in flames, pre­vent­ing any at­tempt by res­cue work­ers to ex­tract the driver.

A wit­ness to the Fort Laud­erdale crash said the car im­me­di­ately burst into flames af­ter the sec­ond of two col­li­sions with walls sur­round­ing homes. The in­ten­sity of the fire pre­vented by­s­tanders from get­ting within 10 feet of the ve­hi­cle to help the two teens trapped in­side, the wit­ness said.

Glitches and scares

While Tesla posts tes­ti­mo­ni­als to its cars’ safety on its blog, the user fo­rum sec­tion of the com­pany’s web­site also in­cludes anec­dotes from Tesla own­ers re­count­ing not-so-safe ex­pe­ri­ences while driv­ing the car.

One de­scribed her car swerv­ing into the left lane and back again while on Au­topi­lot and Auto Lane Change mode. “It re­ally scared me,” she wrote.

An­other de­scribed the car’s touch­screen dis­play, where nearly all func­tions are con­trolled, sud­denly go­ing black and re­boot­ing while the car was in op­er­a­tion.

In a 2016 post, an owner de­scribed “two ter­ri­fy­ing close calls” while us­ing Au­topi­lot.

In one, “we were trav­el­ing 70 mph on a straight stretch of high­way and started to ap­proach a traf­fic jam that was ab­so­lutely stopped.” But the car was not stop­ping or slow­ing down. “All of a sud­den the alarm sounds and Au­topi­lot dis­en­gages and [I] have to slam on the brakes to stop from crash­ing into the stopped cars.” The sec­ond time, the car be­gan to turn into the left lane and al­most struck an­other car next to it. “This thing is freak­ing me out,” the owner wrote.

While Tesla warns cus­tomers to be vig­i­lant while us­ing Au­topi­lot, some crit­ics ques­tion whether driv­ers can be re­al­is­ti­cally ex­pected to main­tain con­stant vig­i­lance when giv­ing over so much con­trol.

In a May tweet, Bene­dict Evans, part­ner in the Ven­ture Cap­i­tal firm An­dreesen Horowitz, which in­vests in tech­nol­ogy, said the “2⁄3 ap­proach” to au­tonomous cars fol­lowed by Tesla, “where the hu­man isn’t driv­ing but might have to grab the wheel AT ANY TIME, is ac­tively dan­ger­ous and a tech­ni­cal dead end.”

In early March, a Florida man on va­ca­tion in Los An­ge­les was shocked at what he saw in­side a Tesla rolling next to him on the high­way at 75 mph:

In a video the man posted on Twit­ter, the Tesla driver was asleep.


Nearly all of the Tesla’s func­tions are con­trolled from a touch screen. One driver re­ported that his screen went blank and re­booted while the car was in op­er­a­tion.


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