Tesla’s latest Autopilot crash is just one of many problems it is now dealing with

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A fatal crash, production problems and now a recall.

Tesla is starting the second quarter in a defensive crouch:

  • Last week, the company revealed that Autopilot, its semi autonomous feature, was engaged during a recent fatal crash in California — its second confirmed Autopilot-related fatality in the U.S.
  • Tesla is struggling to meet its production goals for the Model 3, its first-ever mass-market car. Today, CEO Elon Musk reportedly said the company is producing 2,000 Model 3s a week — 500 short of his goal, which has been adjusted twice.
  • Last week, Tesla voluntarily recalled 123,000 of its Model S luxury sedans to fix a power-steering issue. That is a lot of cars — close to half of all the vehicles the company has produced.
  • Tesla stock is down about 36 percent since its September 2017 peak.

By the company’s own admission, this is a critical time for Tesla. The electric vehicle movement the company arguably popularized is seeing momentum from new and existing players, while self-driving competitors like Alphabet’s Waymo strike deals with automakers to develop vehicles that could rival Tesla’s own offerings. As both an automaker and a self-driving tech company, Tesla still has a lot to prove.

The crash

It’s not yet known whether Autopilot was at fault for 38-year-old Tesla driver Walter Huang’s death, but the simple fact that it was involved has put Tesla’s already fraught future — as well as the self-driving industry — at risk.

On March 23, Huang crashed his Model X into a median on a California highway while the SUV was operating in Autopilot mode. Tesla recovered the logs from the vehicle, and upon analyzing them said that the driver had received “several visual and one audible” cue to take back control of the car.

“The driver had about five seconds and 150 meters of unobstructed view of the concrete divider with the crushed crash attenuator, but the vehicle logs show that no action was taken,” the company wrote in a blog post.

This is the second U.S. crash of a Tesla confirmed to be operating Autopilot that has led to a fatality. The first was in Williston, Fla., in May 2016.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which is also investigating the March 23 crash, found that the first Autopilot-related fatality in 2016 was in part a result of the driver overrelying on Tesla’s semiautonomous software, but that Autopilot operated the way it was supposed to.

The NTSB’s investigation into this crash is ongoing, but the agency said that it was “unhappy” that Tesla revealed the details of the investigation to the public. The NTSB is also looking into reports that the driver previously complained about the performance of the Autopilot software.

Relatives of Huang said that he took his Tesla to the dealership because the software caused the car to swerve toward the highway barrier that his vehicle ultimately crashed into.

A Tesla spokesperson declined to comment on the NTSB’s comments but said they found no record of Huang bringing the vehicle into a dealership to service its Autopilot software.

“We’ve been doing a thorough search of our service records and we cannot find anything suggesting that the customer ever complained to Tesla about the performance of Autopilot,” a Tesla spokesperson said in a statement. “There was a concern raised once about navigation not working correctly, but Autopilot’s performance is unrelated to navigation.”

The fallout

The tragic death comes as both the industry and Tesla brace for the fallout from a recent fatality that involved an Uber-operated semi-autonomous vehicle in Tempe, Ariz.

The NTSB, along with local police and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, is also investigating the Uber crash, which resulted in the death of 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg.

Both crashes hit at a larger question many in the industry have: Is semi-autonomous technology safe?

With Uber and Tesla being two of the most prominent brands in the auto and tech industry working on some version of self-driving, consumer trust in the new technology could take a hit.

When it launched Autopilot, Tesla set the benchmark for the most advanced adaptive cruise control available in consumer vehicles. That technology has received multiple updates, and Musk has said he expects the second generation of the software to be capable of a high level of self-driving in about two years.

However, as it exists today, Autopilot is not intended to operate in all circumstances, and in fact is limited to highway driving. In other words, drivers need to be alert and ready to take over at all times — which creates an odd situation that is now clearly prone to failure.

That was also the case in Uber’s crash: The system relies on a trained operator to take over when the technology doesn’t work, though there are some important distinctions that need to be made between the two. For instance, Uber’s technology, which is still in development, is intended to operate on local roads with variables including pedestrians. Tesla’s Autopilot is only supposed to ease the highway-driving task.

Uber’s vehicles, however, are not available to the wider public, and are not being sold direct to consumers. Tesla, which says its technology is also still in beta, is putting its technology in the hands of consumers. Still, if either of the companies’ semiautonomous software is found to be at fault, there could be a resounding impact on consumer trust around self-driving.

“The consequences of the public not using Autopilot, because of an inaccurate belief that it is less safe, would be extremely severe,” Tesla wrote in a blog post. “There are about 1.25 million automotive deaths worldwide. If the current safety level of a Tesla vehicle were to be applied, it would mean about 900,000 lives saved per year.”

Production woes

Tesla’s voluntary recall of 123,000 Model S cars punctuated its ongoing struggles with meeting production goals of its mass-market vehicle, the Model 3.

The Model 3 is a significant barometer by which investors and the industry are measuring Tesla’s capability as an automaker. Can Tesla make the shift away from being just a luxury player to a mass-market carmaker at scale?

By Musk’s own admission, the early years of Tesla — from the Roadster to the Model X — were in service of laying the groundwork for building and selling a mass-market electric vehicle.

But the company has gotten off to a rough start in meeting the many ambitious goals Musk has set for the production of the vehicle.

In July 2017, Musk said that he aimed to produce 5,000 Model 3 vehicles per week by the end of 2017. The company then shifted that rate goal to 5,000 cars per week by the end of March 2018. But then in January, Musk lowered that goal to 2,500.

Today, Tesla is producing 2,000 Model 3s a week, according to emails obtained by Jalopnik.

“If things go as planned today, we will comfortably exceed that number over a seven-day period!” Musk wrote, referring to the current rate of production.

The company’s head of engineering also tried to rally the troops last week, saying the company needed to prove the “haters” wrong, as Bloomberg first reported.

“The world is watching us very closely, to understand one thing: How many Model 3s can Tesla build in a week?” Doug Field wrote. “This is a critical moment in Tesla’s history, and there are a number of reasons it’s so important. You should pick the one that hits you in the gut and makes you want to win.”

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Tesla Model X in Autopilot Killed a Driver. Officials Aren’t Pleased With How Tesla Handled It.

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Updated 3PM ET

Tesla is taking PR very seriously after one of its vehicles in autonomous mode killed a passenger recently.

The crash occurred at 9:27 AM on Highway 101 near Mountain View, California. Walter Huang was in the driver’s seat of the Model X, which was in autonomous mode. The car hit a concrete highway divider, marked with black and yellow chevrons, at full force. Huang didn’t take any action. The SUV crumpled like a tin can, and Huang didn’t make it.

Other information has been hard to come by, due to the severity of the damage. So far we don’t know if his death was a result of negligence, a fatal nap, or simply being distracted by the fireworks of warning lights, and sounds. But one thing is clear: the crash proves that audio and visual cues on the dashboard could after all be insufficient to prevent a crash.

Huang wasn’t the first to die in a Tesla with Autopilot active. In 2016, Joshua Brown crashed his Model S into a truck, marking fatal collision while Autopilot was engaged.

The timing for this particular crash isn’t exactly ideal (from Tesla’s perspective). Uber is already doing damage control after its self-driving car killed a pedestrian in Arizona on March 19, four days before Huang’s fatal collision.

Interestingly, officials aren’t too pleased about Tesla’s PR offensive. On Sunday, a spokesperson for the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) told the Washington Post:

At this time the NTSB needs the assistance of Tesla to decode the data the vehicle recorded. In each of our investigations involving a Tesla vehicle, Tesla has been extremely cooperative on assisting with the vehicle data. However, the NTSB is unhappy with the release of investigative information by Tesla.

Presumably, investigators aren’t happy because they’d like to get as much information as they can, then release a report.

But Tesla might have jumped the gun. Not complying with the NTSB’s investigation processes and deadlines might end up having their technological advancements (and security improvements) screech to a halt.

After the Uber car’s crash, the company was banned from further testing in Arizona (though other companies were allowed to continue). Many people feared that the crash would fray the public’s trust in autonomous vehicles, and that largely has not come to pass, at least not yet.

But if the crashes continue, that could change. The market for autonomous cars could dry up before the technology becomes reliable enough to make them widespread.

Tesla’s Autopilot is Level 2 autonomy, while Uber’s self-driving car is a Level 4. So the technology isn’t even really the same. Still, a turn in the tide of public opinion could sweep both up with it.

Autonomous vehicles aren’t the best at sharing the unpredictable road with imprecise humans. Yes, once fully autonomous vehicles roll out all over the country and make up 100 percent of the vehicles on the road, American roads will inevitably become safer.

But we’re not there yet. If crashes like these keep happening, and the public loses trust, we might never be.

Update: Tesla CEO Elon Musk took to Twitter to respond to comments from NTSB and reiterate Tesla’s priorities:

The post Tesla Model X in Autopilot Killed a Driver. Officials Aren’t Pleased With How Tesla Handled It. appeared first on Futurism.


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Tesla Driver Nearly Crashes Recreating Fatal Autopilot Accident

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Last month, an Apple engineer died when his Tesla Model X crashed into a safety barrier while driving on Autopilot in Mountain View, California. Local authorities, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), and Tesla are all investigating the fatal accident. But another Tesla owner in Chicago decided to try his own investigation of the Autopilot […]
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Tesla puts Model 3 Autopilot controls on the steering wheel

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Tesla has rectified one of the biggest Model 3 issues that cropped up during early reviews from Engadget and others. Until now, operating key vehicle functions like the Autopilot required tapping on the center display, effectively pulling the driver'…
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Tesla: Autopilot was engaged in fatal Model X crash

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After a fiery crash in Mountain View, CA last week killed the driver of a Tesla Model X, the company provided an update on the incident with a blog post. It did not name the driver, identified by ABC 7 News as Apple engineer and former EA programmer…
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Tesla says Autopilot was engaged during fatal Model X crash

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Tesla says Autopilot was engaged at the time of a deadly Model X crash that occurred March 23rd in Mountain View, California. The company posted a statement online late Friday, after local news reported that the victim had made several complaints to Tesla about the vehicle’s Autopilot technology prior to the crash in which he died.

After recovering the logs from the crash site, Tesla acknowledged that Autopilot was on, with the adaptive cruise control follow distance set to a minimum. The company also said that the driver, identified as Apple engineer Wei “Walter” Huang, had his hands off the steering wheel and was not responding to warnings to re-take control.

The driver had received several visual and one audible hands-on warning…

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Ford’s new driver-assist system isn’t Autopilot, but it’s a step in the right direction

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Ford announced a raft of new driver-assistance features today, promising to make automatic emergency braking and other safety technology standard on many of its vehicles. The automaker stopped short of trying to look as if it would compete with semi-autonomous systems like Tesla’s Autopilot, but it’s a sign that improved safety technology will be coming to many more vehicles in the near future.

Ford has rolled out a number of new driver-assistance features piecemeal over the years, but now is repackaging five of them together under a new name: Ford Co-Pilot 360. The new system includes automatic emergency braking, blind spot monitors, backup cameras, lane keep assist, and auto high beams. A more premium version that includes adaptive…

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Elon Musk Confirms Tesla is Working on Custom Hardware for Autopilot

Custom Hardware

On December 7th, Tesla CEO Elon Musk appeared at a company event for academic and industry researchers. Musk attended the event with Tesla’s Vice President of Hardware, Jim Keller (former AMD architect), in order to discuss the company’s custom AI hardware in development. CNBC reported that one of the event’s attendants quoted Musk as saying “Jim is developing specialized AI hardware that we think will be the best in the world.”

Reports have been surfacing recently regarding the possibility of Tesla teaming up with AMD (or at least a number of big talents from the hardware company) to develop a custom chip that would allow the company to become more self-reliant in terms of its processing needs. Tesla currently uses graphics cards (GPUs) provided by Nvidia to run its Autopilot software.

Tweets from Stephen Merity, a senior research scientist who live-tweeted the event, claimed Keller had touted the possibility of the developing hardware with the goal of heightening efficiency and removing overhead for the company. Additionally, Musk was said to have noted that custom chips could “give 10x the power at a tenth of the cost.”

Image credit: JD Lasica/Flickr
Image credit: JD Lasica/Flickr

Tight Timeline

Musk was also said to have reiterated his projection regarding the availability of fully self-driving vehicles. Merity wrote that Musk thinks we will see fully autonomous cars within two years and that it will take just three years for the technology to develop autonomous drivers that are better than humans.

This would be quite a lofty goal for the electric vehicle manufacturer: the current self-driving capabilities of Tesla’s Autopilot sit around Level 2, leaving a long way to go to get to Level 5 autonomy in just a couple of years.

Musk has made similar claims before: back in April, he stated that in two years it would be possible for a driver to sleep during a trip between California and New York while the vehicle’s autopilot took over.

It is unclear when any possibly in-development hardware will be available in Tesla vehicles.

Tesla did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The post Elon Musk Confirms Tesla is Working on Custom Hardware for Autopilot appeared first on Futurism.


Tesla Autopilot to receive ‘rapid rollout of additional functionality’

Elon’s little car company just sent a progress update to shareholders letting them know the Tesla Semi would be unveiled on November 16th, and its cars Autopilot AI software was getting an upgrade that’ll bring them closer to full autonomy. Big things are happening for the company, even if earnings aren’t exactly wowing investors. In the document the company revealed that updates to AI software were nearly ready for launch: We continue to update our Autopilot software and recently made significant improvements to the Autosteer function. The Tesla AI team, which is fundamental to achieving full autonomy, strengthened dramatically this year,…

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