Tesla Terror–Autopilot Feature Investigated For Smashing Failures

Defensive driving used to be about awareness of what other drivers were doing. With technological “progress,” now those on the road need to be concerned about what other cars are doing. What’s the difference you ask? Well, with Tesla’s Autopilot feature, some of its cars are equipped to drive themselves resulting in collisions with stationary first responder vehicles. As a result, the National Highway Safety and Transportation Administration (NHSTA) has opened an investigation into Tesla’s smashing autopilot failures.

Tesla is an American electric car company based in Palo Alto, California. The company’s name is a tribute to inventor and electrical engineer extraordinaire Nikola Tesla. Even if you aren’t familiar with Tesla, certainly you have heard of the company’s high-profile CEO, Elon Musk. Yes, he’s so high that he’s aiming for the stars, literally with his SpaceX program. Meanwhile, back on the ground, Tesla and Musk have experienced some liftoff failures with its autopilot system for Tesla electric cars.

The company’s autopilot feature enables Tesla vehicles to steer, accelerate, and brake automatically within their lane. Nevertheless, Tesla manuals instruct drivers to put their hands on the steering wheel when the vehicle is in autopilot mode. And all drivers follow their car manual’s instructions to the letter, of course. Yeah, right. When was the last time YOU even opened your car’s driver’s manual? Just as I suspected….

Demonstrative Exhibit A as to why this instruction is given comes to us from a March 2018 crash of a Tesla in the self-driving mode. Did the “driver” have his hands on the wheel? Nope. He had his hands and his eyes on his cell phone playing games while the car was rolling down the road. We don’t know the outcome of the game on his phone, but we do know that this was the last game he ever played; the “driver” was killed in the crash. In another instance, a drunk driver was found in the back seat of his Tesla as it drove him, helpfully trying to assist him in avoiding a DUI.

But human error (stupidity?) cannot be fingered in all the Tesla crashes under investigation. Tesla vehicles operating with this feature are reported to have been in repeated collisions with stationary emergency vehicles such as police cars, ambulances, or other emergency vehicles. These accidents typically occur after dark where “scene control measures” such as road cones, flares, illuminated arrow boards, and first responder vehicle lights are in use. For example, in January 2018, a Tesla in struck a parked firetruck with its lights flashing. Maybe the Teslas are being “blinded by the light.” (Cue Manfred Mann music in the background.)

Don’t blame the poor Teslas. Blame their programmers. According to experts, the likely cause of these crashes is that the autopilot systems are programmed to pretty much ignore stationary objects. Why? If this programming were included, the vehicle could react to all sorts of things on the side of the road such as signs and buildings. Methinks there needs to be some technology tweaking.

Due to the rise in collisions in autopilot situations, NHTSA issued new rules in June requiring companies like Tesla to report all incidents involving such systems. By mid-August, concern had so increased about these collisions, that NHSTA opened an investigation. In particular, its investigation is focused on twelve accidents which have occurred in nine different states.

The twelfth accident actually happened shortly after the investigation began. (Poor timing, if you ask me.) This crash took place on I-4 in Orlando shortly before 5:00 a.m. A car had broken down in a travel lane, and a highway patrol car was stopped behind the disabled vehicle with its lights flashing. The Tesla hit the police cruiser and narrowly missed hitting the trooper who had exited his vehicle to approach and render aid to the stranded motorist. Perhaps the Tesla was rubbernecking and not paying attention leading to the crash.

The NHTSA investigation is focused on Tesla’s Advanced Driver Assistance System (ADAS) and particularly Tesla Models X, Y, S, and 3. A Model 3 Tesla was the one involved in the late August 2021 Orlando crash. To gather information on the problem, NHTSA sent a detailed 11-page letter to Tesla with numerous questions to be answered. An October 22nd deadline for a response was set. If it is determined that the Tesla autopilot system is unsafe, NHTSA could require the company to recall cars or repair them to correct safety defects. This remediation effort could affect up to 765,00 Teslas built between 2014 and 2021. Who knew there were even that many electric cars out there on the road?

In the meantime, Tesla, in light of its “success” with the autopilot feature, is moving forward to release a new and even more ambitious version of Full Self Driving (FSD) software. Currently that feature is undergoing beta testing, where the near finished product is provided to a target group of users to evaluate performance in real world conditions. Sure, that’s where Tesla needs to work the bugs out–on the road where the rest of us are innocently driving. Sounds like a great plan to me. What could go wrong with that? (See earlier paragraphs regarding crashes with current system…..)

Much is at stake, such as life and limb, when one gets in a car. I am not convinced that any convenience derived from relying on imperfect autopilot technology to drive me from point A to point B is worth putting my life and health on the line. Admittedly, human beings aren’t perfect drivers either and can make mistakes; however, we can at least usually recognize and attempt to avoid stationary first responders. While Tesla goes back to the drawing board to teach its autopilot program about parked emergency vehicles, I’ll keep my hands on the wheel. Won’t you do so as well?

WONDER-ing Woman:

Have you ever driven an electric car? Would you be comfortable in fully relying on an autopilot system to drive you on the highway? At what point should an autopilot feature be deemed safe enough for use on the road?

10, 9, 8, 7, 6……Never Mind! SpaceX Liftoff is X’d

History was made at Cape Canaveral yesterday. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the history everyone was expecting to be made. On the agenda was the first launch in the history of human spaceflight with a private company in charge of the mission. Only it was the mission that wasn’t. The launch was scrubbed mere moments before the scheduled liftoff due to weather concerns.

Were you oblivious to this historic event? Have you been living under a rock and erroneously thinking the only thing going on in the world is the pandemic? Not to worry. You have time before the rescheduled launch Saturday afternoon to get up to speed on the new face of America’s space program. Or is it America’s space program?

In years past, space programs have been run by countries. Only three of them so far, the United States, Russia, and China, have achieved launching humans into space. Countries are so last year though. Commercial entities are the future of space programs.

It wasn’t Uncle Sam running the show for the scrubbed launch. No, Elon Musk’s California-based company, SpaceX, was in charge. The transportation system being used to lift the astronauts up into Earth’s orbit, the Dragon capsule atop the Falcon 9 rocket, was designed and built by SpaceX. Elon sure does like X’s in names whether it is his latest baby crazily named X Æ A-Xii or his business baby, SpaceX.

Where is NASA in this you might wonder as I did. NASA is bankrolling SpaceX’s efforts. The company was awarded approximately $3.1 billion (that billion with a B) under the Commercial Crew Program to develop spacecraft to replace the shuttle. SpaceX owns and operates the spacecraft which will be seen lifting off when it ultimately does liftoff.

Despite SpaceX being three years behind on the goals outlined for the program, NASA believes the Commercial Crew Program should save the agency between $20 billion to $30 billion. Even so, it is still pretty pricey to book an astronaut a ride on a SpaceX flight. NASA’s Inspector General estimates the per seat cost is $55 million. That’s one expensive ticket to ride that astronaut’s got!

Not only was the scrubbed launch the first attempt by a private company to fly astronauts in space for NASA, but it was also to be the first astronaut launch from Florida in nine years. The space shuttle program ended back in 2011 with the final flight of the shuttle Atlantis.

But the more things change, the more they stay the same. It may be SpaceX running the show instead of NASA, but there are some familiar features to the current mission. First, there’s a new vehicle, but the same astronaut. Doug Hurley was the pilot of the last shuttle flight back in 2011. Hurley, a 53 year old retired Marine colonel, is also one of the two astronauts forming the SpaceX crew for this flight.

The capsule, called the Dragon Crew (What? No X in the name?), in which the astronaut crew is riding has a familiar look; it is cone-shaped like the capsules used pre-shuttle program. And Elon is into recycling; this capsule is recoverable. It will not land on a runway like a space shuttle but will splash down in the Atlantic. Such a return from space has not been seen for about 50 years when it occurred in the early years of the U.S. space program.

The space crew is not boldly going where no man has gone before. In fact, people have been there and done that for some time. What’s that? The destination is the International Space Station (ISS), a $100 billion orbiting lab, where the astronauts will spend 1-4 months.

But there are some big differences between this flight and past ones too. In the past throngs of people showed up on Florida’s Space Coast to view a launch. Now, however, the U.S. is in the midst of a pandemic. NASA has urged spectators to stay away due to health concerns. Those people who listened were glad they did since no launch even occurred Wednesday. The poor folks who showed up to see history being made may have noticed some interesting shaped clouds in the sky or perhaps some clever face masks on others in the crowd, but they did not witness a liftoff.

If you thought you could spot the astronauts because they’d be wearing the customary big, bulky orange spacesuits, you’d have missed them. White trimmed with black is the new orange. SpaceX designed and built its own spacesuits for the commercial crew. These outfits are custom-fit, one-piece, two-layer pressure suits. Who says you can’t be fashionable when you are conducting a scientific mission? Not Elon Musk!

And the Astrovan taking the astronauts on the 9-mile ride to Launch Complex 39-A is history. No, an Uber will not be called. Instead, Elon is generously offering a gull-winged Tesla Model X with white and black trim (to match the spacesuits and the rocket) for ground transportation. Coincidentally (NOT!), Elon also is the CEO of Tesla. Busy guy, huh?

Once in the Dragon crew capsule, the astronauts will find a revamped interior. Who needs all those switches and knobs? Touchscreens have replaced them on walls which are now gleaming white instead of drab gray. With white spacesuits and white walls, hopefully the cameras will be able to spot where the astronauts are inside the capsule.

As with prior launches, the astronaut crew is heavy on military experience. Joining retired Marine Hurley is 49 year old Bob Behnken, an Air Force colonel. But these astronauts are modern men with modern spouses. Both are married to astronaut wives, Karen Nyberg and Megan McArthur, who have flown in space. The spouses met when all were members of the astronaut class of 2000. Their romantic as well as astronaut futures were truly written in the stars.

Astronauts Hurley and Behnken, who have trained for four years for this mission, will have to wait a few more days to embark upon it. The next attempted launch is set for Saturday at 3:22:45 p.m. EDT (or so). Unfortunately weather reports indicate a 60% chance of rain, cloud cover, etc. which would be incompatible with a launch. (But, then, we all know how reliable weather reports are….) If it has to be the third time for the launch charm, attempt #3 would occur on Sunday at 3:00:11 p.m. (ish).

The worst thing that will happen this weekend is that launches are postponed giving us news reports which have nothing to do with the pandemic. (Um, that’s not bad.) I’m hoping for the best case scenario where the news reporter covering the launch can say, “Look! Up in the sky. It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a flying Dragon crew capsule!”

Just WONDER-ing: 

Did you realize how enormously expensive it is to achieve manned space flight? Are you excited that manned space flights originating here in the U.S. are on tap again? Should manned spaceflights be a commercial as opposed to governmental activity? Do you plan to watch the rescheduled launch? Why or why not?