Autonomous driving systems introduced in everyday vehicles represent one of the major advances in the automotive sector. If car manufacturers praise the safety of their autopilots, many questions remain about the reliability of these devices. In a survey, the New York Times is interested in the real safety of Tesla’s Autopilot in the United States.
Mortality is high on American roads
Tesla, General Motors, Ford… Many companies in the automotive industry are equipping their vehicles with level 2 assisted driving technology, i.e. which helps the driver to accelerate , to steer and to brake. The Elon Musk-led company integrated its self-driving system, Autopilot, into its cars in 2015, followed by General Motors’ Super Cruise in 2017 and, most recently, Ford Motor’s BlueCruise in 2021.
The United States’ strategy to democratize the use of electric vehicles
Tech and transportation giants are known for adding many features in the cabin that they claim enhance passenger safety. However, several American authorities indicate that it is difficult to verify their assertions. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), a federal agency responsible for traffic safety, revealed in late May that the number of deaths from traffic accidents in the United States reached its highest level in 16 years. last year.
” We face a crisis on American roads that we must solve together “Warns Pete Buttigieg, Secretary of Transportation of the United States. Last year, 42,915 people died in a motor vehicle on American territory, an increase of 10.5% compared to 2020. In comparison, 2,947 people lost their lives on the roads of France in 2021.
In the United States, institutions are asking automakers who equip their vehicles with an autonomous driving system to be transparent about accidents involving their models. Last year, NHTSA ordered companies in the industry to report such events within a day of discovery. The agency is supposed to publish a report including all the data collected from the actors in the field. This has not yet been released.
Tesla wants to show that its Autopilot is safe
If these figures are supposed to alarm, for Tesla, vehicles equipped with Autopilot are safer than conventional cars. To prove it, since October 2018, the company has listed a quarterly report on its site reporting the number of kilometers traveled between two accidents when drivers use the driver assistance system and when they do not use it.
In the last quarter of 2021, the latest report, Tesla was reporting a crash every 7 million miles when Autopilot is on versus 2.5 million miles driven before a crash when the self-driving system is off. Much more reassuring data than the NHTSA figures. The federal agency reported an accident every 779,000 kilometers during its last investigation.
However, these data are not comparable. Virginia State Board of Transportation researcher Noah Goodall told the New York Times that ” we know that cars using Autopilot are less involved in accidents than when Autopilot is off. But are they driven the same way, on the same roads, at the same time of day and by the same drivers? “. The numbers provided by Tesla are misleading. The Autopilot would mainly be used during freeway journeys considered, by a study conducted by the Virginia Board of Transportation, to be twice as safe as driving in the city.
The concern of security experts
What particularly worries American security experts are the arguments used to sell these vehicles equipped with autopilots. For years, Elon Musk has claimed that Teslas were close to being fully autonomous, which is not true. Currently, the cars produced by the billionaire require constant monitoring from the driver.
False allegations like those made by the CEO of Tesla can lead to reduced vigilance among drivers. Autopilots have already been at the heart of several fatal tragedies in which the person behind the wheel was unprepared to regain control of the vehicle. This is the cause of the first death in the United States involving an autonomous vehicle from Uber in 2017. A pedestrian was knocked down at night while the security driver, supposed to ensure the smooth running of the journey, was watching an episode of The Voice on his smartphone.
What about fully autonomous vehicles?
Some companies already offer fully autonomous vehicles, particularly as part of transport services. This is the case of Waymo, a subsidiary of Alphabet, the parent company of Google, and Pony.ai, a Chinese start-up supported by Toyota. Both companies offer ride-hailing services in parts of Phoenix in the United States and Guangzhou in China. Although these races are carried out by autonomous cars, a safety driver is present in the cockpit to intervene in the event of loss of control.
While Elon Musk insists on the safety of Tesla’s Autopilot, nothing can guarantee the complete reliability of these autonomous driving systems. In August 2021, the American authorities had opened an investigation into the Autopilot following a series of accidents which, according to the NHTSA, left at least 17 injured and two dead. 765,000 Tesla vehicles released between 2004 and 2021 are affected.