The news cycle is a funny thing. One minute, something can be considered safe, but wait a few months, and new studies confirm it isn’t. It can get even more confusing when studies go through a lot of back and forth. Autopilot has done just that, which has led to a lot of uncertainty.
So, is autopilot, specifically the autopilot found in Tesla Model 3 electric cars, actually safe? If we were still living in 2019, then yes, but more recent research has declared it a no.
The Tesla of 2019: Autopilot is Safe
Tesla released several Autopilot safety numbers throughout 2019. The company updated its Q2 numbers in Q3 to show that autopilot is almost 9x safer than average driving. Even back then, researchers already saw multiple problems with this report.
Why Autopilot Probably Wasn’t Safe in 2019
For one, Tesla’s autopilot was primarily operational on motorways, which have fewer car accidents than street driving. Autopilot accidents can only be assessed with experienced lawyers who are knowledgeable on different car accident scenarios.
For another, Teslas are newer cars, which means they’re less likely to get into an accident. Tesla also didn’t account for every scenario in their report. When Tesla kept autopilot on, their cars only saw a decrease in accidents when other safety features were also present.
Tesla’s reports are notoriously light on data and leave a lot to be desired. While their Q3 numbers state their cars experienced 1 accident for every 4 million miles with autopilot on, declaring autopilot safe, other, less biased manufacturers can’t recreate these numbers.
The Tesla of 2020/2021: Autopilot is Dangerous
The annual “Automated Vehicle Summit” took a closer look at Tesla’s autopilot driving system. It’s determined that Tesla’s autopilot contains rudimentary systems to ensure people are still paying attention to the road, like force applied to the wheel and alarms that alert the driver.
Tesla’s system isn’t the most accurate. In fact, GM “Super-Cruise” uses cameras to monitor eye movement to determine how much attention is being paid to the road, mirrors, or elsewhere.
Most Autopilot Accidents are the “Drivers Fault”
Tesla drivers pay less attention to the road when autopilot is on. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) study found that drivers were 22% more likely to look down, probably at their phones or centre stack (Tesla’s infotainment screen), during a crash than regular drivers.
This could mean two things: drivers aren’t clear on what “autopilot” actually means, which is a marketing flaw, or the autopilot itself isn’t enough to protect drivers from an accident.
Tesla Doesn’t Explain the Difference Between “Crashes” and “Accidents”
It isn’t clear what Tesla means when they speak about “accidents,” which can be an essential distinction. The NHTSA calculates crashes as any car accident reported to the police, while Tesla likely lists any accident where the airbag is deployed, which would warp the report.
Autopilot is Either “Slightly” Safer or Less Safe on Average
Due to Tesla’s bad reporting and skewed statistics, it’s hard to determine if autopilot is truly safer. We also don’t know how many accidents were caused by driver inattention, but the MIT study determines it plays a significant factor. So what is the answer to the “safe” question?
In this Forbes article by Brad Templeton, he tries to level the data where possible. He states that when autopilot is used correctly, you’re just a little bit safer. When it isn’t, you’re taking on too much of a risk. But this is just a guess. Autopilot is likely to be more dangerous regardless.
Although the data is still inconclusive, primarily due to shady reporting, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Tesla’s electric cars are widely regarded as safe cars if you use them properly. However, it seems like, across the board, autopilot has a long way to go before it can be considered “safe”.