California Tesla crash draws more scrutiny

Photo (c) Princigalli - Getty Images

The fatal accident follows the recall of 363,000 vehicles

The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has asked for more information from Tesla and California authorities who are investing a weekend accident in which a Tesla plowed into a firetruck parked on a freeway.

One person was killed and another critically injured in the accident that occurred just days after a recall of nearly 363 thousand Tesla vehicles equipped with the company’s advanced driver assistance feature, which Tesla markets as Full Self-Driving Beta.

That followed a notice by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) warning that in rare cases cars equipped with the technology could be in violation of state and local traffic laws. It said there could be an increased risk of an accident if the driver fails to intervene.

According to the most recent reports, it is not known what caused the accident or if the car was being operated in self-driving mode. While suspicion has focused on self-driving technology in other Tesla crashes, Matas Buzelis, the president of the Association of Automotive Intelligence and an automotive expert at carVertical, says it’s a complicated issue.

Safer than human drivers

He cites data provided by Tesla, along with government safety statistics, that show vehicles using a self-driving system caused 9.6 times fewer accidents than cars driven by humans.

“Perhaps there are situations when the autonomous system can’t really match the human driver in certain environmental perceptions,” Buzelis told ConsumerAffairs. “However, computers and sensors monitor so much more processes simultaneously when compared to human drivers. And that is the key to safer traffic.”

John Uustal, a founding partner of Kelley | Uustal Trial Attorneys, is a good bit more skeptical of the technology and says that the safety of consumers needs more attention. He says labeling the driver-assist technology as Autopilot is dangerously misleading.

"It’s crazy because Tesla admits that the driver needs to maintain control,” Uustal told us. “It’s not Autopilot. Tesla calls it Autopilot to drive sales, but this technology is killing innocent people."

Time will tell

Buzelis says the truth may become clearer as Tesla sales grow and there are more of these vehicles on American highways. He says if there is a direct correlation between more cars on the road and accidents, he expects accidents to go down, not increase.

In the latest crash, the Tesla Model S slammed into a firetruck that was parked in one lane of the freeway to protect first responders who were working another accident scene behind it. The Tesla did not change lanes to avoid the truck.

The NHSTA is currently looking into how Tesla’s autopilot system detects and responds to vehicles parked on highways and has opened a number of investigations into Tesla car accidents where Autopilot was suspected of being used.

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