Tesla’s driver-assistance system, known as Autopilot, has been involved in far more crashes than previously reported
By Faiz Siddiqui Jeremy B. Merrill
By Faiz Siddiqui
Jeremy B. Merrill
June 10, 2023 at 7:00 a.m. EDT
SAN FRANCISCO — The school bus was displaying its stop sign and flashing red warning lights, a police report said, when Tillman Mitchell, 17, stepped off one afternoon in March. Then a Tesla Model Y approached on North Carolina Highway 561.
The car — allegedly in Autopilot mode — never slowed down.
It struck Mitchell at 45 mph. The teenager was thrown into the windshield, flew into the air and landed facedown in the road, according to his great-aunt, Dorothy Lynch. Mitchell’s father heard the crash and rushed from his porch to find his son lying in the middle of the road.
“If it had been a smaller child,” Lynch said, “the child would be dead.”
The crash in North Carolina’s Halifax County, where a futuristic technology came barreling down a rural highway with devastating consequences, was one of 736 U.S. crashes since 2019 involving Teslas in Autopilot mode — far more than previously reported, according to a Washington Post analysis of National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data. The number of such crashes has surged over the past four years, the data shows, reflecting the hazards associated with increasing use of Tesla’s driver-assistance technology as well as the growing presence of the cars on the nation’s roadways.
The number of deaths and serious injuries associated with Autopilot also has grown significantly, the data shows. When authorities first released a partial accounting of accidents involving Autopilot in June 2022, they counted only three deaths definitively linked to the technology. The most recent data includes at least 17 fatal incidents, 11 of them since May 2022, and five serious injuries.
Mitchell survived the March crash but suffered a fractured neck and a broken leg and had to be placed on a ventilator. He still experiences memory problems and has trouble walking. His great-aunt said the incident should serve as a warning about the dangers of the technology.
“I pray that this is a learning process,” Lynch said. “People are too trusting when it comes to a piece of machinery.”
Tesla chief executive Elon Musk has said that cars operating in Tesla’s Autopilot mode are safer than those piloted solely by human drivers, citing crash rates when the modes of driving are compared. He has pushed the carmaker to develop and deploy features programmed to maneuver the roads — navigating stopped school buses, fire engines, stop signs and pedestrians — arguing that the technology will usher in a safer, virtually accident-free future. While it’s impossible to say how many crashes may have been averted, the data shows clear flaws in the technology being tested in real time on America’s highways.
Tesla’s 17 fatal crashes reveal distinct patterns, The Post found: Four involved a motorcycle. Another involved an emergency vehicle. Meanwhile, some of Musk’s decisions — such as widely expanding the availability of the features and stripping the vehicles of radar sensors — appear to have contributed to the reported uptick in incidents, according to experts who spoke with The Post.
Tesla and Elon Musk did not respond to a request for comment.
NHTSA said a report of a crash involving driver-assistance does not itself imply that the technology was the cause. “NHTSA has an active investigation into Tesla Autopilot, including Full-Self Driving,” spokeswoman Veronica Morales said, noting that the agency doesn’t comment on open investigations. “NHTSA reminds the public that all advanced driver assistance systems require the human driver to be in control and fully engaged in the driving task at all times. Accordingly, all state laws hold the human driver responsible for the operation of their vehicles.”
Musk has repeatedly defended his decision to push driver-assistance technologies to Tesla owners, arguing that the benefit outweighs the harm.
“At the point of which you believe that adding autonomy reduces injury and death, I think you have a moral obligation to deploy it even though you’re going to get sued and blamed by a lot of people,” Musk said last year. “Because the people whose lives you saved don’t know that their lives were saved. And the people who do occasionally die or get injured, they definitely know — or their state does.”
Former NHTSA senior safety adviser Missy Cummings, a professor at George Mason University’s College of Engineering and Computing, said the surge in Tesla crashes is troubling.
“Tesla is having more severe — and fatal — crashes than people in a normal data set,” she said in response to the figures analyzed by The Post. One likely cause, she said, is the expanded rollout over the past year and a half of Full Self-Driving, which brings driver-assistance to city and residential streets. “The fact that … anybody and everybody can have it. … Is it reasonable to expect that might be leading to increased accident rates? Sure, absolutely.”
Cummings said the number of fatalities compared with overall crashes was also a concern.
It is unclear whether the data captures every crash involving Tesla’s driver-assistance systems. NHTSA’s data includes some incidents in which it is “unknown” whether Autopilot or Full Self-Driving was in use. Those include three fatalities, including one last year.
NHTSA, the nation’s top auto safety regulator, began collecting the data after a federal order in 2021 required automakers to disclose crashes involving driver-assistance technology. The total number of crashes involving the technology is minuscule compared with all road incidents; NHTSA estimates that more than 40,000 people died in wrecks of all kinds last year.
Since the reporting requirements were introduced, the vast majority of the 807 automation-related crashes have involved Teslas, the data shows. Tesla — which has experimented more aggressively with automation than other automakers have — also is linked to almost all of the deaths.
Subaru ranks second with 23 reported crashes since 2019. The enormous gulf probably reflects wider deployment and use of automation across Tesla’s fleet of vehicles, as well as the broader range of circumstances in which Tesla drivers are encouraged to use Autopilot.
Autopilot, which Tesla introduced in 2014, is a suite of features enabling the car to maneuver itself from highway on-ramp to off-ramp, maintaining speed and distance behind other vehicles and following lane lines. Tesla offers it as a standard feature on its vehicles, of which more than 800,000 are equipped with Autopilot on U.S. roads, though advanced iterations come at a cost.
Full Self-Driving, an experimental feature that customers must purchase, allows Teslas to maneuver from Point A to Point B by following turn-by-turn directions along a route, halting for stop signs and traffic lights, making turns and lane changes, and responding to hazards along the way. With either system, Tesla says drivers must monitor the road and intervene when necessary.
The uptick in crashes coincides with Tesla’s aggressive rollout of Full Self-Driving, which has expanded from about 12,000 users to nearly 400,000 in a little more than a year. Nearly two-thirds of all driver-assistance crashes that Tesla has reported to NHTSA occurred in the past year.
Philip Koopman, a Carnegie Mellon University professor who has conducted research on autonomous-vehicle safety for 25 years, said the prevalence of Teslas in the data raises crucial questions.
“A significantly higher number certainly is a cause for concern,” he said. “We need to understand if it’s due to actually worse crashes or if there’s some other factor such as a dramatically larger number of miles being driven with Autopilot on.”
In February, Tesla issued a recall of more than 360,000 vehicles equipped with Full Self-Driving over concerns that the software prompted its vehicles to disobey traffic lights, stop signs and speed limits.
The flouting of traffic laws, documents posted by the safety agency said, “could increase the risk of a collision if the driver does not intervene.” Tesla said it remedied the issues with an over-the-air software update, remotely addressing the risk.
While Tesla has constantly tweaked its driver-assistance software, it also took the unprecedented step of eliminating radar sensors from new cars and disabling them from vehicles already on the road — depriving them of a critical sensor as Musk pushed a simpler hardware set amid the global computer chip shortage. Musk said last year, “Only very high resolution radar is relevant.”
The company has recently taken steps to reintroduce radar sensors, according to government filings first reported by Electrek.
In a March presentation, Tesla claimed that Full Self-Driving crashes at a rate at least one-fifth that of vehicles in normal driving, in a comparison of miles driven per collision. That claim, and Musk’s characterization of Autopilot as “unequivocally safer,” is impossible to test without access to the detailed data that Tesla possesses.
Autopilot, largely a highway system, operates in a less complex environment than the range of situations experienced by a typical road user.
It is unclear which of the systems was in use in the fatal crashes: Tesla has asked NHTSA not to disclose that information. In the section of the NHTSA data specifying the software version, Tesla’s incidents read — in all capital letters — “redacted, may contain confidential business information.”
Both Autopilot and Full Self-Driving have come under scrutiny in recent years. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told the Associated Press last month that Autopilot is not an appropriate name “when the fine print says you need to have your hands on the wheel and eyes on the road at all times.”
NHTSA has opened multiple probes into Tesla’s crashes and other problems with its driver-assistance software. One has focused on “phantom braking,” a phenomenon in which vehicles abruptly slow down for imagined hazards.
In one case last year, detailed by the Intercept, a Tesla Model S reportedly using driver-assistance suddenly braked in traffic on the San Francisco Bay Bridge, resulting in an eight-vehicle pileup that left nine people injured, including a 2-year-old.
In other complaints filed with NHTSA, owners say the cars slammed on the brakes when encountering semi trucks in oncoming lanes.
Many crashes have involved similar settings and conditions. NHTSA has received more than a dozen reports of Teslas slamming into parked emergency vehicles while in Autopilot, for example. Last year, NHTSA upgraded its investigation of those incidents to an “engineering analysis.”
Also last year, NHTSA opened two consecutive special investigations into fatal crashes involving Tesla vehicles and motorcyclists. One occurred in Utah, when a motorcyclist on a Harley-Davidson was traveling in a high-occupancy lane on Interstate 15 outside Salt Lake City shortly after 1 a.m., according to authorities. A Tesla in Autopilot struck the bike from behind.
“The driver of the Tesla did not see the motorcyclist and collided with the back of the motorcycle, which threw the rider from the bike,” the Utah Department of Public Safety said. The motorcyclist died at the scene, Utah authorities said.
“It’s very dangerous for motorcycles to be around Teslas,” Cummings said.
Of hundreds of Tesla driver-assistance crashes, NHTSA has focused on about 40 incidents for further analysis, hoping to gain deeper insight into how the technology operates. Among them was the North Carolina crash involving Mitchell, the student disembarking from the school bus.
Afterward, Mitchell awoke in the hospital with no recollection of what happened. He still doesn’t grasp the seriousness of it, his aunt said. His memory problems are hampering him as he tries to catch up in school. Local outlet WRAL reported that the impact of the crash shattered the Tesla’s windshield.
The Tesla driver, Howard G. Yee, was charged with multiple offenses in the crash, including reckless driving, passing a stopped school bus and striking a person, a Class I felony, according to North Carolina State Highway Patrol Sgt. Marcus Bethea.
Authorities said Yee had fixed weights to the steering wheel to trick Autopilot into registering the presence of a driver’s hands: Autopilot disables the functions if steering pressure is not applied after an extended amount of time. Yee directed a reporter to his attorney, who did not respond to The Post’s request for comment.
NHTSA is still investigating the crash, and an agency spokeswoman declined to offer further details, citing the ongoing investigation. Tesla asked the agency to exclude the company’s summary of the incident from public view, saying it “may contain confidential business information.”
Lynch said her family has kept Yee in their thoughts and regards his actions as a mistake prompted by excessive trust in the technology, what experts call “automation complacency.”
“We don’t want his life to be ruined over this stupid accident,” she said.
But when asked about Musk, Lynch had sharper words.
“I think they need to ban automated driving,” she said. “I think it should be banned.”
Tesla's Autopilot software has been involved with more deaths and injuries than previously known: a total of 17 fatalities and 736 crashes since 2019, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) analyzed by the Washington Post.How much is Tesla autopilot? ›
Navigate on Autopilot: Actively guides your car from a highway's on-ramp to off-ramp, including suggesting lane changes, navigating interchanges, automatically engaging the turn signal and taking the correct exit. Auto Lane Change: Assists in moving to an adjacent lane on the highway when Autosteer is engaged.How does Tesla record accidents? ›
Most Tesla cars come with a 9th in-cabin camera under the rearview mirror. This camera is not activated by default for Dashcam, but you can turn it on. If so, it'll record the car's interior only in the event of an accident.Is it illegal to sleep with Tesla autopilot? ›
Even though Teslas can self-drive on the electric vehicle's autopilot function, it is illegal for drivers to be asleep or unconscious while behind the wheel.Is Tesla autopilot illegal? ›
A new law taking effect next year in California will effectively ban Tesla from using the confusing Full Self-Driving name of its current driver-assist feature. Senate Bill 1398 was sponsored by State Sen.How much does a Tesla battery cost? ›
Tesla battery replacement cost: A few tips
The most basic battery replacement for a Tesla costs between $5,000 and $20,000. This depends on the Tesla model you own. Replacing a Tesla battery in a Model S premium sedan can cost around $13,000-$20,000.
Tesla Autopilot was the company's first autonomous mode, and was introduced in 2014. It's still the least advanced of the options, but it's also included for free with all new Tesla cars — so it's kind of like an added bonus.Is Tesla full autopilot legal? ›
Reviewed by Shannon Martin, Licensed Insurance Agent. A lot of people have been asking where Tesla Autopilot is legal. The answer is everywhere.Do Teslas stop at stop signs? ›
At all times, it is your responsibility to ensure the vehicle stops or accelerates appropriately and safely. Traffic Light and Stop Sign Control DOES NOT turn Model Y through an intersection. When in a turning lane, Model Y stops at the red stop line.
For any Tesla car, the battery will last for at least 272 miles on a single charge and the battery itself can last up to 35 years. Find out which Tesla model is right for you based on the mileage range per charge, how long the battery will last, and what it will cost for a replacement battery.Does Tesla use fuel? ›
Do Teslas Actually Use Gas? No. Tesla's fleet of electric vehicles doesn't use conventional gasoline, and never at one point did it offer gas-powered cars. Tesla vehicles are 100% electric and always have been.Can Tesla footage be used in court? ›
Is Tesla Camera Footage Admissable in California Court? In almost any personal injury case, TeslaCam footage is legally admissible evidence to show what actually happened in an accident. It can also help identify offending drivers and robbery suspects.Do Tesla cars avoid accidents? ›
Tesla has features powered by Autoiplot that are designed to either avoid crashes or reduce the impact of a collision, like Automatic Emergency Braking.Who is responsible if Tesla crashes? ›
If a Tesla car malfunctions, the manufacturer may be liable. Driver error, road conditions, and driving under the influence may lead to driver responsibility. If you find yourself involved in an accident with a Tesla self-driving car, seek legal advice to explore the best ways to heal and move forward.Can you Autopilot a Tesla while drunk? ›
You can get arrested for a DUI if drunk in a self-driving car, including Tesla Autopilot and FSD. Due to not yet being completely autonomous, the police can arrest and charge you for a DUI if drunk in a self-driving car. This includes using Tesla Autopilot and Full Self-Driving mode.Is Tesla Autopilot 100% safe? ›
Tesla's passive safety features also make its vehicles over two times safer than other cars, even when Autopilot is not engaged, with one crash every 1.40 million miles.Can a Tesla lock you in? ›
Interior Locking and Unlocking
While sitting inside Model 3, you can lock and unlock all doors and trunks by touching the lock icon on the touchscreen. The icon changes to indicate whether doors are locked or unlocked.
Tesla just released an over the air update that will now allow the autopilot software to recognize emergency vehicles. This will mean a Tesla will stop for police cars and ambulances, and probably a variety of other emergency vehicles.What states allow Tesla self-driving? ›
Seven states—Florida, Georgia, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Utah, and West Virginia—do not require a driver behind the wheel or for the driver to be licensed if they are, providing that vehicle is deemed to be SAE Level 4 or 5 capable.
Tesla's owner's manual states that Autopilot should not be used on city streets or on roads where traffic conditions are constantly changing; however, some FSD capabilities ("traffic and stop sign control (beta)"), and future FSD capabilities ("autosteer on city streets") are advertised for city streets.What is the lifespan of a Tesla battery? ›
This means that you should consider your driving habits, the distance you drive regularly, and how well you take care of your Tesla batteries. However, you should still expect your Tesla batteries to last at least 300,000 to 500,000 miles before they're due for a replacement.How many years do Tesla batteries last? ›
According to Elon Musk: Tesla batteries are built to last for the full lifespan of your car: between 200,000 and 500,000 miles. The average person drives 273 miles a week, so you can expect your Tesla battery to last anywhere from 15 to 35 years, depending on your driving habits.Does Tesla replace batteries for free? ›
The Long Range and Performance trims have a mileage limit of 120,000 miles. These warranties guarantee that batteries will retain a minimum of 70% capacity retention within this period. If your battery falls below this level of capacity, Tesla may replace the battery under warranty at no additional cost.How do you turn off a Tesla? ›
Touch Controls > Safety > Power Off. Model 3 automatically powers back on again if you press the brake pedal or touch the touchscreen.Does Tesla have a monthly fee? ›
Premium Connectivity is available as an annual or a monthly subscription. Find pricing for a Premium Connectivity subscription from your vehicle touchscreen or the Tesla app.Does Tesla autopilot only go the speed limit? ›
Tesla on Autopilot generally follows the speed limited. There is a setting for the speed to set relative to a speed limit. This is a handy very handy setting on Tesla vehicles as most people drive over the speed limit.Are self driving cars safer than humans? ›
Autonomous vehicles are orders of magnitude safer in preventing many types of accidents that have to do with human driver error — for instance, simply rear-ending another vehicle because the driver wasn't paying attention. These types of accidents will practically never happen with autonomous cars.Can a Tesla stop at a red light? ›
No, it doesn't stop at red lights.How much does it cost to charge a Tesla at a stop? ›
|Cost of a full charge||Energy cost/mile|
|Tesla Model S AWD||$29-$58||$0.07-$0.14|
|Tesla Model S Plaid||$29-$58||$0.07-$0.17|
|Tesla Model X AWD||$29-$58||$0.08-$0.17|
|Tesla Model X Plaid||$29-$58||$0.09-$0.18|
Red lights will still mean stop. Green lights will still mean go. And white lights will tell human drivers to simply follow the car in front of them.” The white phase concept rests on the fact that it is possible for AVs to communicate wirelessly with both each other and the computer controlling the traffic signal.How much does a Tesla raise your electric bill? ›
With a charging efficiency of about 94% and a discharge efficiency of 90%, the electricity used by a Tesla battery is remarkably low, so you won't have to worry about your electric bill ballooning. Based on the national average cost of electricity, charging your Tesla only costs $13.96.Are Teslas more expensive to insure? ›
Teslas are more expensive to insure than many other cars because of their high repair costs, which increase the price of collision coverage. Your car insurance rate depends on the Tesla model and trim you choose, your location and driving history, and the amount of coverage you choose.Will a Tesla last 10 years? ›
Your Tesla Can Last for Over a Decade
If you're an average driver, you can expect to drive your Tesla for more than a decade before you think about a battery replacement. Beyond that, your Tesla can clock over one million miles if you replace the batteries and motor.
1. Toyota Corolla (50 Million+ units sold by 2021) Since its debut in 1966, the legendary Toyota Corolla has been destined for greatness and has sold over 50 million units through 12 generations.How much is the cheapest Tesla? ›
Tesla Model Y prices
To begin, the new Dual Motor AWD Model Y starts at $47,740 as the most affordable, stripped down version of the Tesla crossover. By adding all available top tier features, this standard powertrain can go as high as $67,740.
run on electric motors—so they don't actually have a gas tank, not even as an emergency backup. battery takes approximately 10 hours to reach a full charge, after which it's capable of lasting up to 400 miles before needing to be charged again.Can the police use your dash cam against you? ›
You may choose to show it to them, or you may choose not to. But if the incident results in a legal claim, it could be subject to a search warrant or subpoena. If the police believe your camera has recorded a crime and a search warrant or subpoena is issued, you will have no choice but to provide the footage.Does Tesla have camera inside the car? ›
Your Model Y may be equipped with a cabin camera located above the rear view mirror.Which is the safest car in the world? ›
Ans. The safest cars in the world include cars from Volvo, Mercedes Benz, Audi, Honda, Subaru, Mazda and Tesla. Volvo has several models that consistently attain high rankings in safety awards due to their innovate technology and safety equipment. Audi is not just a luxury brand but is considered for its safety too.
Tesla vehicles use regenerative (regen) braking, a braking mode that increases battery charge and available drive time by automatically applying the brakes when you take your foot off the gas. Rather than rolling to a stop, the car will rapidly slow down.What is the safest car on the market Tesla? ›
Its Safety Assist score is the best we've ever recorded, and its Adult Occupant Protection score of 97% is the best in 2022,” Thatcham Research's chief research strategy officer, Matthew Avery, said. “Tesla has made some bold claims about being super safe in the past, and they're really delivering on that promise.Does Tesla pay for repairs? ›
In 2023, most brands offset maintenance and repair costs with included maintenance as part of the purchase price. Tesla does not offer included maintenance. In the past, Tesla offered for-purchase prepaid maintenance plans for its Model X and Model S, which were very expensive.Does Tesla have accident forgiveness? ›
Another optional policy to consider is accident forgiveness, which may keep your Tesla insurance rate from increasing after your first accident. This coverage may be especially useful considering that Tesla owners already pay high insurance premiums.Are Teslas expensive to repair after an accident? ›
Reuters reports that the Tesla Model Y can be so expensive to repair after a crash that they're being sent to salvage auctions instead of fixed. The publication studied more than 120 Model Y vehicles listed on various auction sites late last year.What are the dangers of Autopilot cars? ›
- More Accidents. ...
- Hacking is easier. ...
- An Unpredictable Industry. ...
- Harmful Radiations. ...
- Technological Malfunctions. ...
- Almost No Driver Interaction. ...
- No Education System. ...
- Not Completely Formed.
Navigate on Autopilot will make lane changes to overtake traffic, move out of the passing lane, make exits, and will travel through highway interchanges with no driver input required. Stop Sign and Traffic Light Control (beta) is the first feature meant for use on city streets.How many people have Autopilot? ›
Fully Autonomous Cars
Now, there's word on just how many customers invested in this functionality. There are more than 90,000 vehicles on the road worldwide that feature Autopilot 2.0.
“It is extremely important to emphasize that Tesla Autopilot is the work of 300 super-talented engineers,” said Musk.How much safer is Tesla autopilot than human? ›
Stats Prove Safety
According to the report, Tesla cars with Autopilot turned on are much safer than cars driven by people. In Q4 2022, there was only one crash for every 4.85 million miles driven.
This autopilot feeling can be related to mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, or dissociative disorders. It may also be a sign that you're feeling burnt out or not coping well with stress. Whatever the cause, you can get off autopilot and take back control of your life.Does autopilot steer for you? ›
Autopilot enables your car to steer, accelerate and brake automatically within its lane. Current Autopilot features require active driver supervision and do not make the vehicle autonomous.Does Tesla autopilot stop at red lights? ›
Traffic Light and Stop Sign Control is designed to recognize and respond to traffic lights and stop signs, slowing Model Y to a stop when using Traffic-Aware cruise control or Autosteer.Does Tesla autopilot let you speed? ›
Touch Controls > Autopilot > Set Speed and choose either Speed Limit or Current Speed. If you choose to engage Traffic-Aware Cruise Control at the currently detected speed limit, you can specify an offset.Is Tesla autopilot legal in all states? ›
But the reality is that no system, not Super Cruise, Tesla's Autopilot, or any other system offered by any other automaker for that matter, can drive you on every road in the United States.How often is your brain on autopilot? ›
They discovered that the average person spends about 47% of their day on “autopilot,” following automated behaviors while their thoughts wander from the task at hand. Equally intriguing, when the participants reported their mind wandering, they also reported being significantly less happy in that moment.Is the brain on autopilot? ›
It's down to something in our brains called the Default Mode Network or DMN. Scientific investigation has now shown that our DMN takes over when we are undertaking familiar activities such as tying our shoelaces or, playing a musical instrument or, as in this case, driving a familiar route.What is the failure rate of Tesla autopilot? ›
In the 4th quarter, we recorded one crash for every 4.85 million miles driven in which drivers were using Autopilot technology. For drivers who were not using Autopilot technology, we recorded one crash for every 1.40 million miles driven.Is Tesla autopilot safe? ›
Teslas not using Autopilot technology logged one crash for every 1.71 million miles driven. For comparison, the NHTSA estimated one automobile crash every 652,000 miles. That equates to Tesla drivers without Autopilot engaged being 2.5 times safer and with Autopilot being used ten times safer than the national average.Who leads Tesla autopilot? ›
|Born||23 October 1986 Bratislava, Czechoslovakia (now Slovakia)|
|Alma mater||Stanford University University of British Columbia University of Toronto|