Are Next Generation Cars Safer? Their Future May be in Question.

by nph | July 25th, 2016

Earlier this month, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released alarming crash statistics for this past year. Their study of all accidents found that automobile related fatalities rose 7.7% in 2015 with an estimated 35,200 deaths compared to 32,675 the previous year. While the factors that contributed to this marked increase are still being investigated, preliminary reports indicate that upwards of 94% of these accidents can be attributed to driver error.1 With these new revelations, many, including the U.S. Department of Transportation have continued to promote further development of new automated safety technologies. However, these solutions have recently come into question.

Before the release of these statistics, news emerged of the first fatal accident involving a Tesla Model S while using the companies ground breaking “Autopilot” autonomous driving mode. While not the first company to emerge with systems providing driver assistance like those the DOT is advocating, Tesla has made some of the greatest strides in this competitive field towards complete autonomous transportation. A full range of driver aids have proliferated the automobile world in recent years with technologies such as adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking, blind spot detection and lane assist. These technologies are becoming available on even more reasonably priced family cars rather than just their six digit Tesla competitors. With claims of increased occupant safety these vehicles have become more and more common and sought after by new car buyers, and with manufacturers increasing availability to meet this demand. However with the May 7th crash, some of these safety claims have been mired with doubt, but is this concern warranted?

While the Florida crash is currently under investigation by local law authorities as well as the NHTSA, Tesla Motors released a statement on their website about the crash. Despite being called an Autopilot mode, the company insists that the feature is meant only to assist drivers who are still responsible for maintaining control of the vehicle not as a fully autonomous system. It works through the use of a variety of technologies to operate such as a forward facing camera, radar and ultrasonic sensors. Combined they allow the car to keep itself within its lane as well as monitor objects or vehicles in front of it, slowing or even stopping the car if necessary. These systems failed however when a tractor trailer turned left crossing in front of the Tesla on a divided highway. The white exterior of the trailer combined with the bright weather conditions that day meant that the camera’s were unable to differentiate between the turning truck and the sky. Along with this failure, the ride height of the truck meant that the radar was unable to detect it with the radar programmed to ignore higher objects so as to prevent false braking for things such as overhead signs.2

These simultaneous system failures caused the Tesla to collide with the trailer at a high rate of speed resulting in an under-ride situation (an accident with one vehicle sliding under the other). The two geometrically incompatible vehicles struck one another severely damaging the front windshield of the Tesla as it passed beneath the trailer before careening off the road. While some drivers using these technologies may be lulled into a false sense of security, Tesla insists that their technologies are meant to supplement the driver, not to replace them. However, the question remains, do these systems improve the safety of car occupants? Despite this tragedy, this is the first fatality in what Tesla claims is over 130 million miles where their Autopilot system was activated compared to one death every 94 million miles amongst vehicles in the United States and the even higher fatality rate of on every 60 million miles worldwide.3

So while highlighting the crash incompatibility between commercial trucks and passenger vehicles on US roadways, the fact remains that the variety of technological safety enhancements on the market today do in fact improve the safety of motorists.

1Aldana, Karen. “NHTSA Data Shows Traffic Deaths up 7.7 Percent in 2015 .” National
Highway Traffic Ssafety Administration. N.p., 1 July 2016. Web.
2Lambert, Fred. “Understanding the Fatal Tesla Accident on Autopilot and the NHTSA
Probe.” Electrek. N.p., 2016. Web. 11 July 2016.
3″A Tragic Loss.” Tesla Motors. N.p., n.d. Web.