Tesla Autopilot steered into a stationary object again—the driver is suing

A PSA to any Tesla owners in the forum

Earlier this month, Shawn Hudson’s Tesla Model S crashed into a stalled car while moving at about 80 miles per hour on a Florida freeway. Tesla’s Autopilot technology was engaged at the time, and Hudson has now filed a lawsuit against Tesla in state courts.

“Through a pervasive national marketing campaign and a purposefully manipulative sales pitch, Tesla has duped consumers” into believing that Autpilot can “transport passengers at highway speeds with minimal input and oversight,” the lawsuit says.

Hudson had a two-hour commute to his job at an auto dealership. He says that he heard about Tesla’s Autopilot technology last year and went to a Tesla dealership to learn more.

“Tesla’s sales representative reassured Hudson that all he needed to do as the driver of the vehicle is to occasionally place his hand on the steering wheel and that the vehicle would ‘do everything else,’” the lawsuit claims.

But that description of Tesla’s Autopilot system is not true. While the system can handle a range of driving conditions, it’s not designed to stop for parked cars or other stationary objects when traveling at highway speeds. This year, at least two other Tesla drivers have plowed into parked vehicles while their cars were in Autopilot mode (one of them sued Tesla last month). Another Tesla customer, Californian Walter Huang, was killed when his Tesla vehicle ran into a concrete lane divider at full speed.

“It is the driver’s responsibility to remain attentive to their surroundings and in control of the vehicle at all times," a Tesla spokesman told Ars by email. "Tesla goes to great lengths to provide clear instructions about what Autopilot is and is not, including by offering driver instructions when owners test drive and take delivery of their car, before drivers enable Autopilot and every single time they use Autopilot, as well as through the Owner’s Manual and Release Notes for software updates.” (I’ve reproduced Tesla’s full emailed statement at the end of the story.)

Hudson’s crash occurred on Friday October 12. He was traveling south at about 80mph on State Road 91. Hudson says he was “relaxing during his commute” when “suddenly, and without any warning” the car crashed into a Ford Fiesta that had been left in the travel lane.

“If this had been something more substantial than a Ford Fiesta he wouldn’t be here,” Hudson’s lawyer, Mike Morgan, said at a press conference announcing the lawsuit.

“Hudson became the guinea pig for Tesla to experiment their fully autonomous vehicle,” Morgan charged.

According to Morgan, the Model S manual states that “you can engage it over 50 miles an hour, but if you engage it over 50 miles an hour, it’s got trouble finding stationary objects and stopped cars. To me, that’s a big problem. To me, that means you’re selling nothing.”

To be fair to Tesla, this problem isn’t unique to the company. Most emergency braking systems on the market today won’t stop for stationary objects at freeway speeds. These systems are not sophisticated enough to distinguish a stationary object on the road from one that’s next to or above the road. So to make the problem easier to handle, the cars may just ignore stationary objects, assuming that the driver will steer around them.

Most of the time, this works well enough. The travel lane on the freeway is only supposed to have moving cars in it. If a driver is using adaptive cruise control to maintain speed with a car ahead, it works great. But it can fail catastrophically in rare circumstances when there’s a stationary object directly in the road—or when the car’s lane-keeping system gets confused about where the lane is and steers the car into a stationary object next to the road. The latter scenario is what apparently happened in the death of Walter Huang—the car got confused about the location of the lanes, steered the vehicle into a “lane” that wasn’t actually a lane, and wound up running directly into a lane divider.

But while a number of car companies have driver-assistance technology with this kind of limitation, Tesla touts the capabilities of its system more aggressively than many of its rivals. Tesla’s Autopilot page has a big banner at the top that says “full self-driving hardware on all cars” across the top. It also features a video of a vehicle navigating through an urban environment with the driver’s hands on his lap the entire time.

Savvy observers know that the video is two years old and depicts a research prototype, not the capabilities of shipping Tesla vehicles. But there’s no disclaimer in the video or the surrounding text. Hudson says that Tesla’s marketing materials led him to believe that Tesla’s vehicles can drive themselves on the freeway with minimal human intervention.

In the past, Tesla has insisted that despite recent crashes, drivers are significantly safer with Autopilot engaged than without it. But when we looked into these claims in May, we found that they didn’t hold up to scrutiny. We simply don’t have good enough data to tell whether the use of Autopilot saves lives on net. And we definitely know that in some cases, Autopilot has made mistakes that a human driver would be unlikely to make.

Update: I added a comment from Tesla to this story. Here’s the company’s full emailed statement:

We don’t like hearing about any accidents in our cars, and we are hopeful that those involved in this incident are recovering. In this case, the car was incapable of transmitting log data to our servers, which has prevented us from reviewing the vehicle’s data from the accident. However, we have no reason to believe that Autopilot malfunctioned or operated other than as designed. When using Autopilot, it is the driver’s responsibility to remain attentive to their surroundings and in control of the vehicle at all times. Tesla has always been clear that Autopilot doesn’t make the car impervious to all accidents, and Tesla goes to great lengths to provide clear instructions about what Autopilot is and is not, including by offering driver instructions when owners test drive and take delivery of their car, before drivers enable Autopilot and every single time they use Autopilot, as well as through the Owner’s Manual and Release Notes for software updates.

Sorry… but I put these reports in the Darwin award category.

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My Volkswagen has an autopilot feature. Now they don’t call it autopilot they call it driver-assist or something like that. But when the little lane icon on my dashboard turns green the car is driving itself. If I put the cruise control on and don’t touch the steering wheel the car will just drive itself and it will keep an appropriate distance between my vehicle and the vehicle traveling in front of it. If there is a sudden slow down it sounds like an incoming atomic bomb in the car. I can’t even tell you how loud the warnings are and the flashing red lights…the whole car just lights up.

It’s taken some getting used to but I’ve used this feature many times and it makes a long drive really much easier. I don’t for a second stop paying attention to the road.

So what I’m thinking is, if my little Volkswagen can do a really fine job with this autopilot navigation…and alert me that there are vehicles or obstacles stopped in front of me by slowing the car down and alerting me to take over…what’s going on with Tesla?

VW didn’t really even brag about this feature at the dealer.

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Do Tesla use radar on their vehicles?
I know they can have lots of cameras fitted.

The emergency brake feature (which is touted on UK television sometimes) uses radar to detect approaching (relative) objects and applies the brakes. It seems to work too.

I remember when it was enjoyable working on vehicles. If the points opened & closed, & fuel made it to the carb, the vehicle ran. Just no longer fun. You open a hood and what you see is, a demonic rat nest of wires - hoses - senors. And it costs a fortune to keep new vehicles running. I had two, no nonsense vehicles. A VW Super Beetle & A VW Golf Diesel. Nothing better to get you from point A to point B. The Golf averaged 50 mpg; and it would run on any fuel you could squeeze through the injectors; as long as the lubricating properties were there.

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So what I’m thinking is, what happens if your on the freeway while your letting the car drive it’s self and you get a blow-out on one of your front tires at a high speed…also what if at that time you had a car right behind you and to your sides? Do you know much of a split second it takes for a tire to blow?

Yeah I’ve had plenty of blowouts in my day. Not a very pleasant feeling. Even when the autopilot is on in my vehicle I keep my hands on the wheel. The moment that I start applying pressure to turning the wheel the autopilot immediately disengages. I also have sensors on the side of the vehicle and the rear of the vehicle which alert me to exactly what you’re talking about. In fact if a vehicle is approaching quickly on my right hand side in my blind spot the vehicle will not allow me to get into the lane of the oncoming traffic. It’s saved my ass on more than one occasion. Now there’s no substitute for human interaction with the vehicle. I think that’s why VW other companies call them driver assistant technologies. If you treat those capabilities with respect and maintain control of the vehicle they are actually really helpful.

I have two friends ( brothers ) who run a shop. They work on anything; but antiques & classics are their specialty. They have over $30,000 in diagnostic equipment for newer vehicles. For older vehicles, they have a timing light & feeler gauge.

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Electrical and electronic devices don’t last forever and will someday fault. What if you get used to it always assisting you and then one day it doesn’t. At that time you would have lost some of your muscle memory to react as fast as you would have needed to. I just don’t like the idea. I was always taught to be aware of your surroundings and expect the unexpected at all times.

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A big problem is, many components in newer vehicles are tied in & depend on other components; and this defeats the most important law of engineering. That law is: “The mark of elegant engineering is to produce the desired effect as simply as possible”. Every extra component is a potential failure. Always will be.

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Automatic features of automobiles should be limited to TRANSMISSIONS!

The surface of the earth is too covered with obstacles that can easily be hit by a moving car.

Despite the hundreds of thousands of aircraft that are traveling through our atmosphere at any given time, there is a shitload of room for error and the term autopilot makes good sense.

On the surface of the earth…in cars and trucks…it is lunacy.

I will NEVER own a car with such features…and I am instructing my family that if I am ever killed or maimed by such a vehicle being operated by others that they should sue everybody involved in the production, sale, financing, ownership, insuring, or operation of the vehicle.

If you are unable to control your own motorcar vehicle, stay the hell off the roads. Hire a driver. Ride a taxi. Ride a bus. Ride a bicycle. Ride a scooter. Ride a horse. Ride a Harley.

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That’s a really good point. I guess that’s why I always lease brand new vehicles. If something breaks it’s not my problem. I take it to the dealer, they fix it, and give it back.

There are many, possibly hundreds of special purpose computer chips in today’s “modern” autos.

Even the diesel engine cars and trucks now depend on electronics to control the engine. It used to be that all you needed was the throttle, the governor, some fuel and a starter motor…and some of them had air starters…didn’t required electricity in any form.

Lord, take me back to the good old days!..back when you had to mash a big button next to the accelerator on a Chevy truck to engage the starter motor…there was no starter solenoid subject to failure…and you had to pull out the choke cable on a cold day…and the wipers operated on engine vacuum…and…and…and…

Or what if God forbid you were in a situation where you had to make a split second decision to actually have to cause an accident in order to avoid a fatal one and the car wouldn’t let you…:grimacing:

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So many wonderful antique - classic vehicles went the way of the scrap yard in WW2. Any that survive are precious.

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Just think of the number of perfectly good Jeeps that were tossed overboard on the way home just because the President wanted his boys to have jobs when they got home.

I’ll tell you what. Why don’t you just go down to the Volkswagen dealership and take one for a test ride and you tell me if you are able to avoid all of these hypotheticals that you’re making up on the fly. I’m confident in my driving abilities and the use of assistive technologies. I travel via road for work 30% of the time. I appreciate making long drives a little bit easier.

What’s good for me might not be good for you.

My friends who own the auto shop have a garage - warehouse, and maybe 35 classics - antiques. Just a pleasure to see those vehicles. They share the space with a young guy who has more money than brains. He has a 38 Bugatti that he takes on road rallies, and it’s impossible to find parts. They all must be custom made - machined.

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:+1:

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