If you drive about 50 miles north of Friendswood, through the heart of Houston, you’ll arrive in Spring, Texas. The area recently made headlines when a 2019 Tesla Model S crashed and burned, killing the two men inside.
Harris County Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman said the electric car was traveling at a high rate of speed when it failed to negotiate a slight curve, went off the road, slammed into a tree and burst into flames.
Too much trust in tech?
Herman made news of the motor vehicle crash go viral when he stated that no one was in the vehicle’s driver’s seat at the time of the wreck. The comment ignited widespread speculation that the men had engaged the Tesla’s Autopilot – a feature that’s a form of self-driving – and had paid the ultimate price for trusting far-from-perfected technology.
Tesla CEO and founder Elon Musk responded to the news almost immediately, saying that data retrieved from the vehicle showed that its Autopilot mode had not been engaged.
Safety checks undone
A Tesla spokesperson pointed out that the company’s vehicles have safety checks to ensure that there’s someone in the driver’s seat with hands on the wheel before Autopilot can be activated. Because the crash vehicle’s seatbelts were found unbuckled, and because damage to the steering wheel suggested it might have been struck by a driver’s head, Tesla concluded that someone had been in the driver’s seat at the moment of impact.
However, a couple of days later, a Consumer Reports engineer showed that Tesla’s safety checks could be easily defeated by buckling the driver’s seatbelt and placing weights on the steering wheel.
It isn’t clear that this tragic crash will have a long-term impact on safety regulations or research, but it certainly contributes to the skepticism surrounding advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) on many new vehicles – rapidly evolving technologies that will one day culminate in truly autonomous, truly self-driving vehicles.
Current ADAS tech includes features such as forward collision warning and automatic braking, rear collision warning (often with rearview cameras and parking sensors) and auto braking, blind-spot monitoring, adaptive cruise control and lane-departure warnings.
Looking toward a SAFE future
Recently introduced in the U.S. Senate, the Stay Aware for Everyone (SAFE) Act, would require the federal Department of Transportation to conduct research and determine if drivers with ADAS-equipped vehicles become reliant on the technology and then complacent and disengaged – self-defeating developments, certainly, if they’re widespread.
If research indicates a significant driver-disengagement issue exists, the bill directs the Transportation Department to mandate the installation of driver-monitoring systems to mitigate the problem.
Staying alert, staying safe
Monitoring systems track drivers’ eyes and issue reminders to stay alert, and they can even pull a vehicle to the side of the road and stop it if a driver is dangerously disengaged or distracted.
If the SAFE Act proposal becomes law, it might well help to make advanced safety tech more effective – and safer. In the short-term, let’s hope that people listen carefully to automakers who caution that ADAS can help to prevent motor vehicle crashes, but that drivers must continue to pay attention to their most important task – driving.