Just a week after Tesla CEO Elon Musk proclaimed the latest version of the Full-Self Driving Beta was almost ready, two people died in Houston while in a 2019 Tesla Model S reportedly using Autopilot.
Against the company’s recommendations, neither of the pair were in the driver’s seat when the sedan crashed into a tree and then caught on fire. It took first responders four hours to put out the fire and extract the bodies from the wreckage, according to multiple reports.
The crash is just the latest in a long series of crashes and fatalities involving Tesla owners who believe the Autopilot function will simply drive the vehicle on its own. Tesla’s long maintained that it tells owners that the system is not designed to do that, however, critics contend it’s not promoted that way.
It’s at least a public relations setback for the California-based EV maker, which is looking to promote its new Full-Self Driving technology. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported in March that it has opened 27 investigations into accidents of Tesla vehicles.
Musk responds quickly
Perhaps aware of the potential damage this latest accident could have on Tesla’s reputation, company CEO Elon Musk responded quickly.
On April 17 he tweeted “Tesla with Autopilot engaged now approaching 10 times lower chance of accident than average vehicle.”
The tweet included information from the company’s Q1 2021 vehicle safety report. It stated “we registered one accident for every 4.19 million miles driven in which drivers had Autopilot engaged. For those driving without Autopilot but with or active safety features, we registered one accident for every 2.05 million miles driven.”
The report noted that for people driving with Autopilot or other Tesla safety features, the company registered one accident for every 978,000 miles driven. By comparison, NHTSA’s most recent data shows that in the U.S. there is a car crash every 484,000 miles driven.
Deaths go back years
But no matter what Tesla data shows, the public has been treated to a series of stories involving fatalities from Tesla crashes while the Autopilot system was engaged.
- On Jan. 3, 2020, the Associated Press reported on three crashes involving Teslas that killed three people within the previous few weeks.
- On Dec. 29, 2019, a Tesla Model S sedan left a freeway in Gardena, California, at a high speed, ran a red light and struck a Honda Civic, killing two people inside, police said.
- On the same day, a Tesla Model 3 hit a parked firetruck on an Indiana freeway, killing a passenger in the Tesla.
- On Dec. 7, yet another Model 3 struck a police cruiser on a Connecticut highway, though no one was hurt.
But these crashes and deaths were just the latest in a series of incidents that have taken place in the past few years.
Fire a danger, software updates launched
In May of 2019, in response to a series of fires involving its battery packs, Tesla announced it was updating its digital control software.
The move came in the wake of a pair of fires in China, a critical market for the manufacturer, both involving parked vehicles. Since the original Tesla Model S was introduced, the company’s products have been involved in more than a dozen vehicle fires.
In May 2018, a Tesla Model S sedan that crashed into the back of a fire truck in Utah. It was operating in semi-autonomous Autopilot mode, the battery-electric automaker has confirmed.
The company said the 28-year-old driver by noting that she repeatedly took her hands off the wheel and admitted being distracted immediately before the crash occurred. This crash occurred only a few weeks after an accident in Florida that killed two Ft. Lauderdale teenagers and seriously injured a third.
In March 2018, Walter Huang died in a crash and vehicle fire in a Model X near Mountain View, California. The family hired law firm Minami Tamaki LLP to explore legal options, and the firms said it believed the Autopilot feature in the electric carmaker’s vehicle probably caused his death.
Tesla stated that according to its readings from the vehicle, Huang did not follow the procedure for using Autopilot. The company said he went longer than six seconds before touching the steering wheel. The system requires drivers to touch the wheel every five seconds.
These deaths and others have caught the attention of the Internet. There is a site called tesladeaths.com.
According to its statistics, there have been 16 fatal accidents in which Autopilot was engaged going back to January of 2016.