Does Tesla’s Autopilot software have something against the emergency services? That’s a flippant question, but there’s something underneath it. On Tuesday, a Model S electric vehicle—with Autopilot engaged, according to the driver—crashed into a police car in Laguna Beach, California. The police car was unoccupied at the time, but the Tesla driver sustained minor injuries.
Probably best to forget the conspiracy theories though. It’s not some bug with Autopilot’s sensors and flashing lights—more like inattentive drivers who should be paying attention to the road. As we learned last year, automatic emergency braking is only trained to work in a relatively narrow set of cases, typically a moving vehicle directly ahead of the car. So a stationary emergency vehicle on the shoulder of the road, particularly one at an angle, might not get classified properly and trigger the function.
It has been a rough couple of weeks for Autopilot. The suite of advanced driver assistance systems, which includes adaptive cruise control and lane keeping, has also been blamed for destroying a Model 3 in Greece last week. In this case, the facts are even murkier—the car was on an unsupported road trip at the time, and Tesla had warned the owner this before he set off.
“While we appreciate You You Xue’s effort to spread the word about Model 3, he was informed that Tesla does not yet have a presence in Eastern Europe and that there is no connectivity or service available for vehicles there,” a Tesla spokesperson told Ars. “In addition, Model 3 has not yet been approved and homologated for driving outside of the U.S. and Canada. Although we haven’t been able to retrieve any data from the vehicle given that the accident occurred in an unsupported area, Tesla has always been clear that the driver must remain responsible for the car at all times when using Autopilot. We’re sorry to hear that this accident occurred, and we’re glad You You is safe.”
One has to feel some sympathy for Tesla, for it is often their most loyal “superusers” who keep getting them into trouble by pushing the bounds of the system—familiarity breeds contempt, and all that. Once again I feel the need to stress the following: Autopilot is not a self-driving system, and was never designed to allow the driver to cede situational awareness to the car. If you drive a Tesla and use Autopilot—or any car with adaptive cruise control—it’s always your job to be paying attention to the road ahead.
Are Tesla’s safety claims backed up by the data?
It is reasonable to ask why crashes involving Teslas get covered when the overwhelming majority of the 40,000-odd road deaths in the US each year receive no such scrutiny. There are a couple of factors at play. The first is Autopilot, which through operational design allows cars to travel for long intervals without human interaction, or any form of driver monitoring beyond a torque sensor in the steering wheel. (By contrast, the industry standard for other adaptive cruise control and lane keeping systems is just 15 seconds hands-free before deactivation.) Hence, every time there is a crash involving a Tesla, the first question anyone asks is “was Autopilot driving?”
Then there’s the fact that Tesla itself repeatedly talks up the safety of its cars, thereby inviting media attention. At various times it has claimed they’re either four times safer than average, or sometimes that they’re the safest cars on the road. And it is true, Tesla EVs score very well in crash testing—even if IIHS did not include the Model S in among the three safest full-size sedans in 2017, nor either Model S or Model X in its list of top safety picks for 2018.
But there’s also reason to be skeptical of its claims. For instance, Tesla repeatedly cites a National Highway Transportation Safety Administration statistic that the introduction of Autosteer to Autopilot reduced crashes by 40 percent. But last month NHTSA told us that it was a “cursory comparison” and that the agency “did not assess the effectiveness of this technology.”
It’s reasonable to expect that a luxury car like a Tesla would have a higher-than-average safety record, based both on owner demographics and the average age of the vehicles. On the other hand, the Model S did not appear on IIHS’s list of 11 vehicles that recorded zero occupant deaths between 2012 and 2015, a list that included several other luxury cars and SUVs. And in just the past few weeks, there has been a spate of fatal Tesla crashes, bothhere in the US as well as Norway and Switzerland.
“In the US, there is one automotive fatality every 86 million miles across all vehicles from all manufacturers. For Tesla, there is one fatality, including known pedestrian fatalities, every 320 million miles in vehicles equipped with Autopilot hardware. If you are driving a Tesla equipped with Autopilot hardware, you are 3.7 times less likely to be involved in a fatal accident,” Tesla told us. “Tesla Autopilot does not prevent all accidents—such a standard would be impossible—but it makes them much less likely to occur. It unequivocally makes the world safer for the vehicle occupants, pedestrians and cyclists.” (We should note that Autopilot is not believed to be a factor in any of the recent fatal crashes.)
The Model S is now the most expensive car to insure
Regardless of whether or not Autopilot is involved, the insurance industry—a dispassionate industry if ever there was one—has looked at the Model S and found it wanting. According to data from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, analyzed by 24/7 Wall Street, the US’ best-selling EV is also the nation’s most expensive car to insure. The average annual insurance premium for a Model S sedan is now $1,789.48, with an average collision insurance claim of $1,310. Insurance for the next-most expensive car on the list—Mercedes-Benz’s flagship S-Class sedan—will set you back $1,540.63, with an average collision claim of just $803.40.
Last year, AAA raised rates on both Model S and Model X EVs, citing abnormally high claim frequencies and high costs of insurance claims compared to other luxury vehicles. Tesla was not pleased, and disputed AAA’s claims, stating that its cars were not being compared appropriately. To combat the problem of sky-high insurance rates, Tesla has partnered with Liberty Mutual to underwrite insurance plans specifically for its EVs, and according to Electrek the company recently hired a former Liberty Mutual executive to run the InsureMyTesla program here in the US. A Tesla spokesperson told us that “Tesla guarantees that there will always be an insurance provider that will charge less for a Model S or X than any other car with a similar driver, price and vehicle category,” adding that the Model 3 is now also part of the scheme.