Five police officers are suing Tesla after being injured by a Model X that plowed into them while they were conducting a routine traffic stop. The incident took place on February 27, 2021, when an allegedly impaired driver over-relied on the Model X's "Autopilot" system, which reportedly gave off 150 warnings to take control of the vehicle in a 34-minute time span.
According to an investigation by The Wall Street Journal, which obtained video (below) from the car, the 2019 Model X struck a police vehicle at 54 mph as it was stopped in a lane of travel with emergency lights flashing on a highway in Montgomery County, Texas. In addition to the five officers injured, the driver pulled over for the traffic stop was hospitalized as well.
The Autopilot system in the 2019 Model X is programmed to take over many driving tasks. The driver is expected to stay alert and keep hands on the steering wheel, ready to take over. The system checks whether the driver's hands are indeed where they should be by looking for subtle torque forces acting on the steering wheel.
If no torque is detected, the system warns the driver. Autopilot operation continues if torque is detected (e.g., the driver puts their hands back on the wheel). However, if after a few seconds no torque is detected, the Autopilot system is supposed to exit and expect the driver to take full control of the car.
Police say the Tesla driver was intoxicated. For all of the 150 warnings, the driver was able to apply just enough torque to the steering wheel for Autopilot to continue. At the time of the 150th warning, the driver heeds the command and touches the steering wheel. At this point, onboard cameras from the Tesla show the flashing lights and police vehicles stopped along the highway. They should have been visible to the driver as well, but the cameras show the Tesla does not deviate from its path of travel.
By the time the Autopilot system sees the police car directly in front of the Tesla there's only 2.5 seconds and 37 yards to react. According to the WSJ, Autopilot first tries to stop the Model X. It then disengages with the expectation an alert driver will take over.
The incident is one of 16 similar crashes under investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Out of eight incident reports obtained by the WSJ, six took place as emergency vehicles' lights were flashing. Tesla has since updated its Autopilot software, but one of the NHTSA's investigations pertains to a crash that took place after the update.
Tesla says the fault lies with the allegedly intoxicated driver. In this case, the Autopilot software may have functioned as programmed. However, if a driver has to be warned 150 times in a half-hour, the notion of driver monitoring is not being accomplished effectively. For what it's worth, newer Tesla cars have internal cameras to detect driver alertness. In our experience, keeping one's hands on the steering wheel and staying alert without doing anything is much harder than just doing the driving. If the Autopilot system exists, there will be drivers who over-rely on it.
NHTSA opens investigation into fatal Virginia crash
Since 2016, the U.S. auto safety regulator has opened more than three dozen Tesla special crash investigations in cases where driver systems such as Autopilot were suspected of being used, with 23 crash deaths reported to date.
U.S. auto safety regulators said Thursday they are opening a special crash investigation into a fatal accident in Virginia involving a Tesla Model Y suspected of relying on advanced driver assistance systems and striking a heavy truck.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is probing a July 19 fatal crash in which the driver of a Tesla died after striking a tractor-trailer truck in Warrenton, Virginia.
The Fauquier County Sheriff’s Office said the 57-year Tesla driver was killed after the tractor trailer was attempting to turn onto a highway from a truck stop. The Tesla struck the side and went underneath the tractor trailer and the driver was pronounced deceased on the scene. The driver of the tractor trailer was issued a summons for reckless driving.
NHTSA typically opens more than 100 “special” crash investigations annually into emerging technologies and other potential auto safety issues that have, for instance, previously helped to develop safety rules on airbags.
Contains reporting from Reuters.
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