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From Tragedy to Triumph for Tesla

From Tragedy to Triumph for Tesla
by Roger C. Lanctot on 01-24-2017 at 12:00 pm

Tesla Motors has done it again. Dragged before the investigators of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Tesla was found faultless and its vehicles flawless in connection with the fatal Florida crash last year.

NHTSA’s findings:


It’s not enough that Tesla passed this test, the company broke new ground in sharing vehicle data to show a 40% reduction in crashes following the introduction of its autopilot feature. Never before has a car company directly argued for the efficacy of a safety system using its own vehicle-derived data.

In this case, Tesla reviewed airbag-deployments in cars with and without autopilot. From the NHTSA report:

“ODI analyzed mileage and airbag deployment data supplied by Tesla for all MY2014 through 2016 Model S and 2016 Model X vehicles equipped with the Autopilot Technology Package, either installed in the vehicle when sold or through an OTA update, to calculate crash rates by miles travelled prior to and after Autopilot installation. Figure 11 shows the rates calculated by ODI for airbag deployment crashes in the subject Tesla vehicles before and after Autosteer installation. The data show that the Tesla vehicles crash rate dropped by almost 40 percent after Autosteer installation.”

This release of data by an auto maker follows, by one year, the disengagement reports from Google for its autonomous vehicles which showed a steady improvement in the number of miles driven between driver interventions. This improvement was prove positive of the power of machine learning. Both instances reveal car companies defending and justifying the implementation of safety systems based on real world data.

This is just one investigation, but it opens the door to wider opportunities for the NHTSA to request (subpoena?) data from car makers to justify or defend design decisions. We are not yet crossing into the realm of personal data violations, but Tesla’s possession of this data and its ability to share the data has raised the bar for every other auto maker.

In this way, Tesla has once again changed the game for legacy auto makers and threatens to upend the industry. Tesla has taken the tragedy of the Florida crash and turned it into an opportunity to demonstrate how and why a car company might put vehicle data to work in the interest of designing safer cars.

With highway fatalities on the rise, according to NHTSA’s latest data for the first nine months of 2016, Tesla has gone from regulatory outlaw to teacher’s pet. Tesla is now in position to partner with NHTSA – perish the thought – as part of the process to find ways to build safer cars.

Do companies like BMW and General Motors have access to this same data? Of course they do. My colleague, Chris Schreiner, who previously had responsibility for human factors at OnStar, is a published driver distraction expert because of his access to airbag deployment data at GM correlated to the use of “personal minutes” – the ability to make phone calls via the embedded OnStar modem.

If Tesla can yank its airbag deployment data on demand and Google can provide detailed analysis of disengagement data, NHTSA may be facing a rejuvenated and fundamentally changed role in the marketplace. The analysis of vehicle data along the lines of the recent Tesla investigation may well serve to change the manner in which five star safety ratings are determined and doled out.

If vehicle data can tell us what is and is not happening in vehicle crashes, maybe all vehicle crash data ought to be collected and evaluated. In fact, maybe the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety can stop smashing perfectly nice new cars in order to determine those same safety ratings. Maybe crashes can and will be replaced entirely by simulators.

It’s too soon to say what the long term “impact” will be – but suffice it to say that Tesla has done it again. The company has upended many assumptions about interacting with regulators and making use of vehicle data. The company has turned a fatal crash into a teaching moment for NHTSA and the industry as a whole. What’s next, Tesla? Flying cars?

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