Tesla Inc.’s ardent defense of its Autopilot system is getting heat from safety advocates who question a key data point the company has been citing to plead its case.
Several times since an Autopilot-linked fatality last month, the electric-car maker has claimed the U.S. government found that an early version of Autopilot reduced crash rates by 40 percent. Several safety experts say Tesla is misstating a conclusion reached by its regulator. Others are calling on Tesla and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to release the underlying data as automated-driving technology comes under greater scrutiny following several high-profile deaths.
Both the company and NHTSA — the publisher of the report Tesla has invoked — have resisted releasing the data, which is the subject of an ongoing public-records lawsuit. Tesla, which can constantly collect information on the acceleration, braking and speed of its customers’ vehicles, is standing by its statements.
“If Tesla’s going to keep asserting that, and particularly if they’re going to keep crediting NHTSA for it, then I think they need to provide the necessary analysis, caveats and qualifications behind that number,” said Bryant Walker Smith, a professor at the University of South Carolina’s School of Law, who studies driverless-car regulations. “If that is even close to being true, then that is one of the biggest safety advances since the seat belt.”
Where the Claim Comes From
Tesla’s claim stems from a January 2017 NHTSA report that closed an investigation into Tesla’s driver-assistance system. The fatal crash of a Tesla Model S on Autopilot in May 2016 prompted the probe, which found no defect.
NHTSA looked at incidents that caused airbags to deploy on Autopilot-equipped Model S and Model X vehicles from model years 2014 through 2016 to compile the report. The agency used those values, plus mileage data that Tesla supplied, to calculate crash rates before and after the cars installed Autosteer, a key component of Autopilot.
NHTSA calculated that 2014-2016 Tesla Model S and Model X vehicles were involved in about 0.8 crashes per million miles after Autosteer was installed, compared with 1.3 crashes per million miles before. The agency said the rates reflected all miles driven — not just those when Autopilot was in use.
“The data show that the Tesla vehicles crash rate dropped by almost 40 percent after Autosteer installation,” the agency wrote. Tesla’s Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk called this line the “highlight” of the report in a tweet at the time.
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