Tesla driver in fatal 2018 crash had reported 'Autopilot' problems before, NTSB finds

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2020/02/11/tesla-driver-in-fatal-2018-cra.html


not ready for prime time


If your robot tried to shiv you several times before, why would you turn your back on it?


Autopilot or self destruct?


What most self-driving-car cheerleaders don’t understand is that the metric for a successful system is not “safer than human drivers, in aggregate / on average,” but is instead “does not kill people in situations where average human drivers would otherwise be fine.” If it will just randomly kill drivers in ways that the most incompetent driver would not, it doesn’t matter how many times it prevents other accidents. It’s not always about what’s “rational” when it comes to personal safety and a sense of self-control.


Weird “news” - the fact that the driver had previously reported Autopilot handling that stretch of highway poorly was one of the first things reported about the crash back in 2018.

There’s a spot on one of my frequent work trips that Autopilot handles poorly. Nothing dangerous, just annoying - a lane splits in two, and Autopilot waits too long to choose a side, and has to steer more quickly than is comfortable when it does choose. So, like… I don’t let Autopilot handle that spot? I have my hands on the steering wheel anyway, and when it doesn’t turn as early as I’d like, I turn it myself?

I have no idea what possessed this guy to notice an actual dangerous problem at one particular spot of highway, repeated often that he reported it, and then KEEP USING IT in that spot. Obviously the major problem here is that Autopilot got that situation wrong, but holy shit that’s a reckless user.


Odd case in which to bring this up. The reason this crash was fatal was that the attenuation barrier had been removed. The reason it was removed was that someone else had crashed into it so recently that they hadn’t had a chance to replace the wreckage.

I don’t know if there are public stats on just how often that particular barrier got crashed into, but I’m sure it was a lot. It was a left-hand exit with inadequate markings. Looking at a still photo of the spot, I was not be able to immediately determine which parts of road were highway lanes and which part led to an imminent crash with a barrier. I expect they’ve improved the markings since then, say by painting stripes in front of the barrier.

In short, this wasn’t a spot in which average human drivers were fine.


Where did you see still photos of the spot? I didn’t see any in the original article linked to in Xeni’s post. Where exactly is that spot?

Reading through the Reuters article, it suggests the driver may have been playing games on his iPhone while barrelling down the congested highway in Mt View at 70mph. (Most freeways in Mt View are congested at most hours of the day).

From the article:

[Tesla] advises drivers to keep their hands on the wheel and pay attention while using the system

I’ve never played with the self driving tech personally, but what good is it if the manufacturer recommends keeping your hands on the wheel and your attention on the road while the autopilot is engaged? What am I missing?


Your last question is actually a really good question. I have a Model 3 with the “Full Self Driving” option. I use Navigate on Auto Pilot frequently on the interstate highway. Navigate on Auto Pilot is currently the closest thing to “autonomous” or “full self driving” that Tesla offers. “Driving” a car in this mode is akin to being a passenger in a car driven by a teenager.
Once you get used to it, you have confidence that it will do the right thing about 90-95% of the time. That other 5-10% of the time can be quite thrilling! And frustrating when it doesn’t handle a situation they way you would or it flat out makes the wrong call. The system is clearly marked beta in the manual and on the display.
The benefit I feel is that after a 3 hour drive I am more relaxed, less tense, and less tired. While you must pay attention, the level of effort is greatly reduced. In its current form is it worth the $7,000 I paid for the option? Probably not, but it keeps getting better. No where near perfect but every update is an incremental improvement.

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That doesn’t instill confidence.


We get it Xeni! You will latch on to any negative Tesla story and minimize the relevant facts. Why not have the headline be: “Speeding Driver in fatal crash after using his phone instead of driving.”

Aren’t most human crashes in situation where average humans are fine 99.99999% of the time?

Because Tesla calls their feature Autopilot and claims self-driving capabilities.




So, all things considered - if I pay almost 10k extra, I’ll get the experience of riding shotgun with a teenage kid while being monitored by my parents from the back seats. Each and every day.
What’s not to like?


It sounds like when I use the cruise control in my car. I am mainly playing with it, using it to pass the time on long drives.

Does the autopilot actually give you a benefit if you have to keep such a close eye on it?

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It’s the junction of 101 South with 85 South. Someone posted an annotated video of driving the stretch where the accident occured., and I took this still from it:

In that photo, to the driver’s far left is an exit, to the immediate left is an upcoming barrier and likely death, and straight ahead and to the right continue on 101. If I were momentarily distracted, then looked up and saw that, I would probably think that to my immediate left was another lane rather than likely death. It is (was, I hope?) a horribly designed junction.

Here’s another still photo, from Google Street View taken in 2016:

Note the attenuation barrier, and the road scars where it looks like a larger barrier was in place before someone crashed into it…


Good question. I go on a lot of trips for work, 75-150 miles each way. I find myself a lot less fatigued after the drive when I’ve been using Autopilot. Supervising the car’s driving seems to impose less cognitive load than the nonstop minor control adjustments required in regular driving. My girlfriend, who was not initially enthusiastic about Autopilot, has experienced the same results; she now complains when she has to go on a road trip and the Tesla isn’t available.

I’m also confident that I’m a safer driver with Autopilot, under the “two sets of eyes are better than one” principle. Autopilot makes occasional insane mistakes that I wouldn’t; I make occasional insane mistakes (mostly distraction or fatigue) that Autopilot doesn’t; hopefully the two sets of mistakes don’t overlap. Driving without it feels kinda… reckless, now. I’m driving for three straight hours and if I space out for a couple seconds at the wrong time the car will just plunge forward and hit whatever’s in front of it at 70mph? Eep.

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Thanks, I know that spot, super close to the googleplex. Left hand exits shouldn’t be that uncommon, and certainly shouldn’t be used as any kind of excuse. Those road markings are pretty clear to me; even using aging optical sensors, my skull-encased organic computer can easily distinguish the different road surfaces from the painted lane markings.

The annotated video is helpful to show how easily fooled the robot eyes of a self driving car can get. There are an infinite number of conditions out there on the roads, and relying on some algorithm to take them all into account is taking your (and my family’s) life into its hands. That sucks that we might have to be collateral damage due to a beta feature.

I had a friend that got rear ended near that spot; he was stopped in traffic and the car behind him had a distracted driver, on their phone, and didn’t see traffic stopped ahead until it was too late. Luckily, my firned didn’t get rear ended by a car doing 70mph, but it was still going fast enough to total both vehicles. The culprit then, and now with the tesla, seems to be the distraction of the device/phone, rather than anything else.

Yeah. After a couple years with Autopilot, I’ve come to appreciate just how difficult of a software problem it is, and I’ve basically given up any hope that it’s going to be a fully autonomous system within the life of the vehicle. Fortunately I’ve also come to appreciate how useful it is to me in its current form as a driver-assistance feature. (And you cannot use Autopilot without the Tesla reminding you over and over that it IS a driver assistance feature and NOT a way to avoid paying attention to the road. But users will be users.)