Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA) had a record year in 2019. No, I’m not talking about sales or profits, but deaths. Yes, because according to public database tesladeaths.com, 50 people died in road accidents involving Tesla vehicles last year.
In fact, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has just announced that it’s investigating the latest of these accidents, which occurred on December 29. According to initial reports, a Tesla Model 3 hit a parked firetruck on Interstate 70, killing the driver’s wife.
Authorities don’t know much else about the incident. Fire officials had parked the truck on a freeway travel lane and left its lights flashing, making it clearly visible. It’s not unreasonable to suspect that the Model 3’s Autopilot was engaged, and that the driver wasn’t paying attention to the road.
Autopilot is an AI-powered system designed to keep a car in lane and at a safe distance from other vehicles, among other things. Tesla claims it’s safer than human drivers.
This isn’t the first accident involving a Tesla the NHTSA has investigated. Another fatal crash took place on the very same day. This time, a Tesla Model S sedan left a freeway at high speed in Gardena, California. Running a red light, it collided with a Honda Civic, killing two people inside.
Once again, the NHTSA is looking into this curious incident. According to its data, it has investigated 23 crashes involving cars potentially using some kind of automated assistance system. Fourteen of these involved Tesla vehicles, while the agency investigates just over 100 accidents a year in total.
This proportion is disproportionately high from Tesla’s perspective. Combined with the aforementioned data from tesladeaths.com it looks doubly bad. The data reveal a 138% increase in fatal accidents compared to 2018, when ‘only’ 21 road deaths involved Tesla cars.
But what does this really mean? Are Tesla cars inherently unsafe? Is Autopilot a death trap in waiting?
Well, from one angle Autopilot is potentially unsafe. You could argue it’s inherently unsafe even. Because by taking over some of the functions from a human driver, it encourages that driver to disengage, just a little bit. He or she pays a little less attention to the road, since why else would you switch on Autopilot? And in some cases, even a little less attention can be fatal.
But this line of argument doesn’t provide the whole story. Sure, Autopilot might conceivably seem to encourage a degree of inattention but statistics mostly support Tesla’s claim that its cars are safer than pretty much anything else on the road.
For instance, last year the automotive research firm iSeeCars published a study on America’s most dangerous cars (in terms of fatal accidents per mile). With the Mitsubishi Mirage and Chevrolet Corvette taking the top two spots, no Tesla model featured in the top 14.
Of course, there aren’t anywhere near as many Teslas on the road as Mitsubishis or Chevrolets. Still, such numbers put Tesla’s rising crash count into perspective, especially when the data from tesladeaths.com includes crashes outside the United States. So too do the five-star ratings the NHTSA awarded the Tesla Model 3 in every safety category, including probability of injury.
And there’s one other institution that seems to think Tesla’s are safe: the market.
While Tesla has been notorious in recent years for loss making, it announced a profit of $143 million in its Q3 results. Since then, Tesla’s stock has gone crazy. It’s up 29% compared to where it was a year ago, more than making up for dips sustained earlier in 2019.
So yes, the market seems to be happy that Teslas are safe. But while there’s nothing to suggest they’re especially dangerous, just make sure you’re still paying attention while Autopilot is on.
This article was edited by Sam Bourgi.
Last modified: January 22, 2020 11:39 PM