Tesla’s Autopilot and Full Self-Driving technologies are safe, according to a letter from the firm to two top Senate Democrats. Like, extremely safe. More secure than human driving. Unfortunately, the senators aren’t convinced.
« Tesla’s Autopilot and FSD Capability features boost our customers’ ability to drive safer than the average driver in the United States, » says Rohan Patel, senior director of public policy at Tesla, in a March 4th letter to US Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Ed Markey (D-MA) (D-MA). (Reuters was the first to report on the letter.)
Tesla is replying to senators’ letter last month to Tesla CEO Elon Musk, which raised « serious concerns » about Autopilot and FSD. Blumenthal and Markey have also urged federal regulators to take action against Tesla in order to avoid further abuse of the company’s advanced driver-assist technologies.
Autopilot and FSD, according to Patel, are Level 2 technologies that « demand the driver’s ongoing monitoring and attention. » These features are « capable of performing some but not all of the Dynamic Driving Tasks (DDT) that human drivers can undertake, » he says. (This appears to contradict Tesla’s overly optimistic product promotion as « Full Self-Driving. »)
Patel’s letter provides a more sophisticated (and possibly legally verified) description of Autopilot and FSD than Musk generally provides on Twitter and in other public statements. Musk, for example, said in a recent earnings call that FSD will be safer than human driving by the end of 2022.
Patel does not use the same deadline, but he believes Tesla’s sophisticated driving features are safer than human driving. He observes:
For example, in the fourth quarter of 2021, Tesla recorded one crash for every 4.31 million miles driven in which our drivers were using Autopilot technology, compared to the NHTSA most recent data, which shows an automobile crash occurs every 484,000 miles.
Tesla issues safety reports on a regular basis that repeat these same numbers in an attempt to portray Autopilot as safer than human driving. However, experts point out that these figures are mainly worthless because Autopilot is predominantly employed for highway driving. When compared to national figures that include a wide range of driving settings, such as residential and urban driving, Tesla has an unfair edge.
Patel goes on to detail Tesla’s driver monitoring system, which monitors driver attentiveness via torque sensors in the steering wheel and (in some Model 3 and Model Y vehicles) interior cameras.
He fails to note that authorities and safety experts have been pleading with Tesla for years to improve driver monitoring in its vehicles. Musk has even stated that Autopilot crashes are caused by complacency, although he has previously resisted recommendations from his own engineers to add more effective driver monitoring to the company’s vehicles. Musk called the technology « ineffective » at the time.
Companies such as General Motors and Ford presently sell vehicles equipped with camera-based eye-tracking systems designed to ensure that drivers pay attention when using hands-free driving capabilities.
If Patel’s letter was intended to ease Blumenthal and Markey’s concerns about Tesla’s dedication to safety, it does not appear to have succeeded.
In a joint statement, the senators stated, « This is just more dodge and diversion from Tesla. » « Despite its problematic safety record and tragic collisions, the firm appears to want to continue doing business as usual. » It’s past time for Tesla to get the message: obey the law and prioritize safety. »
Tesla did not respond to a request for comment (and has not done so since 2019).