Does Autosteer Actually Deserve Credit For a 40% Reduction In Tesla Crashes?

Tesla’s high-flying image, which had been moving from strength to strength since early 2013, hit its biggest speed bump last year when its Autopilot semi-autonomous/Advanced Driver Assist System (ADAS) came under scrutiny in the wake of Joshua Brown’s death. Suddenly Tesla’s pioneering Autopilot system went from being one of the company’s key strengths to being a serious liability that raised troubling questions about the company’s safety culture. Tesla CEO Elon Musk tried to swat away these concerns with what proved to be a set of highly misleading statistics about Autopilot safety, but the issue was not laid to rest until NHTSA closed its investigation with a report that seemed to exonerate Autopilot as a safety risk. With a single sentence, NHTSA shut down the most dangerous PR problem in Tesla’s history:

The data show that the Tesla vehicles crash rate dropped by almost 40 percent after Autosteer installation.

Because NHTSA is the federal authority on automotive safety, with unparalleled resources to assess and investigate safety risks, this single sentence effectively shut down public concerns about Autopilot’s safety. In a terse statement on its company blog, Tesla noted

we appreciate the thoroughness of NHTSA’s report and its conclusion

But how thorough was NHTSA’s investigation, and how accurate was its conclusion? As it turns out, the questions around Autopilot’s safety may not be as settled as Tesla and NHTSA would have you believe.

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How Tesla Tries To Keep The Media On Autopilot

autopilot

Today I appeared on Bloomberg television to discuss Tesla’s latest earnings, as I have after the electric car maker’s last few quarterly reports, but this time things were somewhat different. Minutes before we went live, the show’s host Emily Chang told me that she would be asking me about a correction that Tesla had requested to my most recent Bloomberg View post about the new Autopilot 2.0 hardware suite announcement. My initial draft had said that “several” people had died in Teslas with Autopilot enabled, and at the request of a Tesla representative my editors and I agreed to clarify that only two deaths were tied to the controversial driver assist system. I am always happy to make factual corrections to my writing, but because I had limited time to explain the complex circumstances around this particular issue I thought I would write a post laying out the particulars of this case.

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The Salt Is Real

SaltFlat

In the eight and a half years since I began studying and writing about the auto industry in a professional capacity, my positions on the topics of the day have rarely failed to cause some level of controversy. I’ve long since lost count of the number of enraged comments, emails and tweets my writing has inspired, and I’ve even had my last name mocked by the White House press secretary during a press gaggle on Air Force One after an Op-Ed I wrote for the New York Times was misquoted by Rush Limbaugh. Once the spokesman of the leader of the free world has made an “Animal House” joke at your expense, every subsequent howl of outrage tends to fade into the background a bit … at least until the most influential automaker in the world smears you with the baseless innuendo and outright lies.

Ever since Tesla Motors wrote a salty blog post responding to my investigation of its use of non-disclosure agreements in return for “goodwill repairs,” a thousand flowers of anger, hatred and slander have bloomed across the internet. An online lynch mob, seemingly unleashed by Tesla and its CEO Elon Musk, has flooded social media, forums and comment sections with false and defamatory statements about me, my motivations and my reporting. Were these attacks in any way fact-based or substantive, we might be able to have an interesting and illuminating debate about the issue at hand. But because Tesla apparently chose to attack me personally, in vicious, indiscriminate terms seemingly calculated to cause as much harm to my professional credibility as possible, it’s time to get truly salty. In fact, if you’re following a low-sodium diet, you may want to go ahead and stop reading now.

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Tesla Suspension Breakage: It’s Not The Crime, It’s The Coverup

TeslaBallJoint

For several months now, reports have circulated in comment sections and forum threads about a possible defect in Tesla’s vehicles that may cause suspension control arms to break. Many of those reports appeared to come from a single, highly-motivated and potentially unreliable source, a fact which led many to dismiss them as crankery. But as more reports of suspension failure in Teslas have come in, Daily Kanban has investigated the matter and can now report on this deeply troubling issue.

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NHTSA Shrugged

There's a new sheriff in town... and he's big on self-enforcement.

There’s a new sheriff in town… and he’s big on self-enforcement.

As the GM ignition switch scandal snowballed over the last year, there has been much debate about just how much blame NHTSA bears for not catching the decade-old defect. The House Committee on Energy and Commerce staff report [PDF] analyzes NHTSA’s failure to prevent the deaths of 84 Americans (and counting), and concluded that a number of factors prevented NHTSA from detecting patterns that GM’s own top executives claim to never have known about. With headings like “information silos ” and “organizational tunnel vision,” the failures identified in the report are strikingly similar to the culture problems blamed for GM’s malfeasance; there’s even a “NHTSA shrug” to match the “GM shrug” identified in GM’s Valukas Report.  But the report’s final page gives the ultimate version of what we might as well start calling the “American shrug”:

There are no simple solutions to the failures exposed by this recall.

Which is true enough, as far as it goes. Again, if GM’s own leadership couldn’t identify the problem amid ten years of evidence it’s fair to say NHTSA didn’t have a chance. So rather than wondering why NHTSA isn’t capable of catching the worst-case nightmare scenario, perhaps we should be setting the bar a little lower. For example, let’s ask if NHTSA can at least ensure recalled cars don’t get sold before being repaired and if it can apply its efforts consistently. Because apparently even these modest standards are too much to ask…

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Niedermeyer Tackles GM Recall Regulation At Road & Track

Can it be saved? Or is there another way?

Can it be saved? Or is there another way?

In my last Bloomberg View column, I asked the question on everyones’ lips: how do you solve a problem like General Motors? I gloomily concluded that only creative destruction at the hands of consumers would truly “fix” a culture as broken as GM’s, in light of the firm’s nearly half-century of arrogance and failure. But with congressional hearings about to begin, Road & Track asked me to explore the regulatory side of the problem in a little more depth. Perhaps, one editor suggested, NHTSA’s ineptitude, underfunding or industry capture adds to the government’s responsibility for this mess.

Clearly this is the case. The shameful situation with David Strickland and Chrysler/Venable proves that Americans can’t trust NHTSA to serve their interests. But is there really evidence that NHTSA could have forced a GM recall any earlier than it did? Given that GM execs appear to have hid the problem from themselves, NHTSA would have to embed deep within every automaker to catch this type of problem. Instead of throwing more money and mandates at NHTSA, which clearly has its own culture issues, it’s time to take a different approach. Rather than trying to hold an entire corporation accountable, lawmakers should create criminal penalties and whistleblower protections that force every executive and engineer to personally weigh the consequences of cutting corners in vehicle safety. As my R&T piece concludes:

The first line of responsibility for the public’s safety lies with the engineers and executives who design and build the cars … just as individual motorists are the first line in terms of their personal safety. Only when they individually face penalties that are nearly as harsh as those consumers face at the hands of their defects will they truly take safety as seriously as we do.

The Great Auto Safety Crash, Or, Why You Need To Be A Lawyer To Do An Automotive Journalist’s Work

GMCobaltNHTSA

I'm not an automotive journalist, but I played one on TV in the 1960's...

I’m not an automotive journalist, but I played one on TV in the 1960’s…

Of all the automotive sector topics covered by the business media, defect recalls are consistently one of the most tricky to cover. Most defects are the inevitable products of immensely complex supply chains and constant price pressure, and recalls for them are ultimately a sign of a company responding to the problem. And with some 22 million vehicles recalled from the US market in 2013, consumers can hardly be expected to know which ones represent grounds for real concern.

Because automakers control all the information about the products they make, reporters on the automotive safety beat have little choice but rely on the company line for their stories. Only the threat of investigation by the National Highway Transit Safety Administration compels automakers to fully reveal their dirty laundry, and only NHTSA’s complaint database gives the public an opportunity to compare their experiences with the company line. No wonder the first real auto safety journalist (and the inspiration for NHTSA’s founding) was a lawyer.

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