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Is Tesla’s Tough Love Two Way?

Is Tesla’s Tough Love Two Way?
by Roger C. Lanctot on 06-08-2016 at 4:00 pm

 Tesla applied some tough love last month. The company let two drivers know that the crashes they suffered were their own fault.

Drivers have an anachronistic expectation of privacy when they get in their cars. Car makers have fostered this delusion by proclaiming their devotion to driver privacy, even though privacy is generally surrendered at the point of sale when all those documents and disclosure forms are signed.

Two drivers of the Tesla Motors Model S recently learned of the limits of their privacy following crashes attributed to the vehicle’s Autopilot automated driving mode. One Tesla driver who hit a car on Interstate 5 in California told Ars Technica that the Autopilot was to blame, but Tesla says the vehicle data logs showed that the driver touched the brake pedal thereby disengaging Autopilot. A driver in Utah blamed Tesla’s Summon autonomous-parking feature for the car driving underneath a parked truck – but Tesla says the driver ignored multiple warnings that Summon was activated.

There are several implications to Tesla’s unprecedented use of its own data logs. No other car company readily produces vehicle-related data in this manner. Tesla has demonstrated a willingness to defend the performance of its vehicles, but will it ever make the vehicle data available to Tesla drivers defending themselves?

As in the case of General Motors’ ignition switch recall and the resulting investigations and legal action, car companies generally seek to limit how much data they extract from cars or they seek to limit access to the data that they do extract. Companies such as GM, Ford, Honda and Hyundai have started to make some of this data available to their customers with monthly or on-demand vehicle health reports. But no company has shared vehicle diagnostic or crash forensic data in the manner that Tesla has.

Tesla’s willingness to share this data is clearly motivated by the company’s desire to preserve and defend its good reputation. The Tesla Model S received a top safety rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration which has helped to keep Model S insurance rates on par with or lower than those for comparable cars.

Additionally, Tesla has come under fire for making the Autopilot feature available as a beta function with various caveats for Model S drivers. In that context, it makes sense for Tesla to defend itself when the system is misused or abused.

Ironically, Tesla CEO Elon Musk claims that drivers are 50% less likely to have an accident when autopilot is engaged. The irony lies in the fact that human drivers are actually “teaching” autopilot how to drive better with every driver intervention during piloted driving.

But Tesla’s use of vehicle log data is nothing new. Tesla used vehicle data logs against a New York Times reviewer who took Tesla to task for exaggerating its claims for vehicle driving range etc. Tesla undermined the reporter’s credibility with vehicle data in defense of the company’s claims.

Tesla has so few cars on the road that a Tesla getting into a crash is a news event. With tens of thousands of cars shipped, Tesla can afford to extract individual vehicle logs on its own behalf. What remains to be seen is whether Tesla will be willing to extract data log information in defense of its customers.

Speaking at the Future Connected Car event in Santa Clara two weeks ago, Haden Kirkpatrick, director of marketing strategy for Esurance, said insurance rates for the Tesla Model S aren’t likely to be higher than other cars because of the limited claims history on the car. Tesla’s sharing of vehicle data log info is designed to preserve the reputation of its cars, but will the company be equally protective of its drivers?

Tesla is unique in its use of wireless connectivity to its cars. Tesla uses that connectivity to preserve the integrity of the on-board software while also enabling the installation of system upgrades via Wi-Fi or directly via the cellular connection. Tesla has even shown that its connected system is able to detect tampering or hacking of the vehicle system by the owner or others.

While Tesla is fond of rewriting the traditional rules of vehicle ownership, its inclination to blame its drivers for these two recent high profile crashes marks a critical point of alignment with all other car makers, NHTSA and even Google. All these parties are fond of blaming drivers for crashes and the resulting damage, injuries and fatalities – even when events later show vehicle flaws are involved. It will be interesting to see when or whether Tesla will ever accept blame or, more importantly, when or whether Tesla will use its vehicle data logs to defend a human driver of a Tesla.

Roger C. Lanctot is Associate Director in the Global Automotive Practice at Strategy Analytics. More details about Strategy Analytics can be found here:

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