A Tesla Model S on autopilot crashed into a parked police car

Tesla repeats time and time again that it’s autopilot mode is not driverless functionality under a different name. This isn’t just a legal way of covering its back – driverless cars may be safer than human drivers (low bar that this is), but Tesla’s features aren’t there yet. A timely reminder of this occurred in Laguna Beach, California when a Tesla Model S in autopilot mode crashed into the side of a parked police car.

A Tesla Model S on autopilot crashed into a parked police car

Fortunately, there were no fatalities. The man in the Tesla suffered “minor injuries” while the police officer who owned the police car wasn’t in the vehicle at the time. All the same, as accidents go, crashing into a parked police vehicle isn’t ideal PR for Tesla especially, as USA Today notes, this was in almost exactly the same spot as another Tesla Autopilot accident from a year earlier.

Tesla, in its defence, repeated its previous statements about Autopilot being an assistant rather than a replacement for the human. A statement read that the company “has always been clear that Autopilot doesn’t make the car impervious to all accidents, and before a driver can use Autopilot, they must accept a dialogue box which states that ‘Autopilot is designed for use on highways that have a centre divider and clear lane markings.” Drivers are also “continuously reminded” of the need to keep hands on the wheel at all times, the company added.a_tesla_model_s_on_autopilot_crashed_into_a_parked_police_car_-_2

But if it’s not a full-blown driverless solution, how useful is Autopilot? Tesla did previously argue that Autopilot functions improve safety but just last week settled a class action lawsuit arguing that the system was “essentially unusable and demonstrably dangerous.” The wording of the settlement drops the word ‘safety’, instead concentrating on delays to system updates, but given Tesla originally dismissed the suit as “disingenuous,” “inaccurate” and “sensationalist,” this is still quite a climbdown.

Tesla founder and CEO Elon Musk has recently been quite aggressive at how the media covers Tesla crashes, as compared to the huge number of human-based road accidents. He’s even gone as far as to plan a website to assess journalistic credibility.

Fair or not, however, each accident related to autonomous car features – no matter how sophisticated they are or aren’t – is another reason for some to doubt our driverless future, and there’s evidence that faith in non-human drivers is slipping. This may be temporary, of course. When I spoke to Udacity’s driverless car expert David Silver earlier this year, he argued it was an inevitable development that’s very hard to stop. “People are now super comfortable riding in elevators,” he argued. “It didn’t take that long – if there were lots of elevator accidents, people would be concerned but the elevator companies are very, very responsible about their product and people are fine with it.”

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