This article was previously written in 2016 after a death took place in a Tesla car that had Autopilot enabled, of course, it’s a tragic incident & since then other similar incidents have taken place but from what I’ve read, it seems to have been the lack of safety features in the trailers, primarily the lack of safety rails/under-run guards/side guards that cause these deaths and nothing to do with the car.
In 2021, a very similar death occurred, this time sadly in a Model Y, I fear as always the press will jump on the fact it was a Tesla and that it had Autopilot and they will blame that and scare people into thinking these cars are unsafe. In the UK all trailers are fitted with under-run guards to prevent the majority of major injuries from vehicles side impacting trailers (see photo), in the US it’s completely different.
Since 1986 side guards have been compulsory on all trailers built in the UK, no law (that I can find) applies in the US, although in some states Government owned vehicles are starting to have them fitted.
I have driven thousands of miles on Autopilot and trust it 95% of the time, however, it must be remembered it’s a driving aid, it isn’t a fully autonomous car (yet) and it is in public BETA but that being said if all trailers in the US were mandated to have this obviously safer technology it wouldn’t matter as I suspect the vast majority of these incidents wouldn’t end up with a fatality.
Do these barriers really solve the issue?
Not completely but it’s a damn sight better than the first impact point of a car being the top of the windshield inches away from the drivers head! If the car impacts these side guards the car will have a fraction of a second to deploy the airbags etc.
What are the other benefits of these rails?
- It stops pedestrians and cyclists going under trailers whilst turning etc, as evidenced by Harvard installing them on all of their applicable vehicles [source] and stating “Following a similar national mandate in the United Kingdom, cyclist fatalities dropped by 61 percent and pedestrian fatalities from side-impact crashes dropped 20 percent. “
- “When designed to be aerodynamic, certain side guard types also lead to a 4 to 7 percent improvement in fuel economy, saving truck operators money and reducing emissions.”
- Side guard on semitrailer prevents underride in 40 mph test
- Lateral Protection Device – Evolution study on Regulation UNECE n° 73
In 2016, Tesla released this statement:
A Tragic Loss
The Tesla Team – 30 June 2016
We learned yesterday evening that NHTSA is opening a preliminary evaluation into the performance of Autopilot during a recent fatal crash that occurred in a Model S. This is the first known fatality in just over 130 million miles where Autopilot was activated. Among all vehicles in the US, there is a fatality every 94 million miles. Worldwide, there is a fatality approximately every 60 million miles. It is important to emphasize that the NHTSA action is simply a preliminary evaluation to determine whether the system worked according to expectations.
Following our standard practice, Tesla informed NHTSA about the incident immediately after it occurred. What we know is that the vehicle was on a divided highway with Autopilot engaged when a tractor trailer drove across the highway perpendicular to the Model S. Neither Autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied. The high ride height of the trailer combined with its positioning across the road and the extremely rare circumstances of the impact caused the Model S to pass under the trailer, with the bottom of the trailer impacting the windshield of the Model S. Had the Model S impacted the front or rear of the trailer, even at high speed, its advanced crash safety system would likely have prevented serious injury as it has in numerous other similar incidents.
It is important to note that Tesla disables Autopilot by default and requires explicit acknowledgement that the system is new technology and still in a public beta phase before it can be enabled. When drivers activate Autopilot, the acknowledgment box explains, among other things, that Autopilot “is an assist feature that requires you to keep your hands on the steering wheel at all times,” and that “you need to maintain control and responsibility for your vehicle” while using it. Additionally, every time that Autopilot is engaged, the car reminds the driver to “Always keep your hands on the wheel. Be prepared to take over at any time.” The system also makes frequent checks to ensure that the driver’s hands remain on the wheel and provides visual and audible alerts if hands-on is not detected. It then gradually slows down the car until hands-on is detected again.
We do this to ensure that every time the feature is used, it is used as safely as possible. As more real-world miles accumulate and the software logic accounts for increasingly rare events, the probability of injury will keep decreasing. Autopilot is getting better all the time, but it is not perfect and still requires the driver to remain alert. Nonetheless, when used in conjunction with driver oversight, the data is unequivocal that Autopilot reduces driver workload and results in a statistically significant improvement in safety when compared to purely manual driving.
The customer who died in this crash had a loving family and we are beyond saddened by their loss. He was a friend to Tesla and the broader EV community, a person who spent his life focused on innovation and the promise of technology and who believed strongly in Tesla’s mission. We would like to extend our deepest sympathies to his family and friends.