Mr. Musk tweeted this month, “Beta 9 addresses most known issues, but there will be unknown issues, so please be paranoid. Safety is always top priority at Tesla.” Safety may be a top priority at the factory, but out on the public roads, it’s not only Tesla drivers who have a vested interest in the safety of the vehicles.
On Tesla’s quarterly earnings call this week, Mr. Musk appeared to acknowledge that full self-driving is still half-baked. “We need to make full self-driving work in order for it to be a compelling value proposition,” he said of the technology, when asked about the $199 monthly fee to access it when Tesla releases it to a wider swath of drivers.
Tesla drivers may fall victim to a version of what’s known in clinical drug trials as therapeutic misconception, in which trial participants (beta testers, in this case) tend to overlook the potential risks of participating in an experiment, mistakenly regarding themselves as consumers of a finished product rather than as guinea pigs. And with self-driving cars, Tesla owners aren’t the only trial participants.
Consumer Reports has raised serious alarms about the safety of Tesla vehicles using the automated systems. Videos of full self-driving in action “don’t show a system that makes driving safer or even less stressful,” said a Consumer Reports official. “Consumers are simply paying to be test engineers for developing technology without adequate safety protection.” This is simple: The cars are a hazard to pedestrians, cyclists and other drivers. Which makes it all the more alarming that the internet is full of videos of Tesla drivers reading books, checking email, leaving the driver’s seat or snoozing behind the wheel.
In other words, Teslas appear to be a risk to drivers and others on the road when a computer is behind the wheel. The National Transportation Safety Board has criticized autopilot for lacking proper means to prevent driver misuse and effective driver monitoring systems. That should have all Americans concerned that their public streets are a testing ground.
Competitors like General Motors Co.’s Cruise and Alphabet’s Waymo have taken a more measured approach, putting paid employees behind the wheel as a safety check while the cars are tested in real-world environments. At least they have no misconceptions about what’s going on. Unlike Teslas, those vehicles are easily identifiable as prototypes on the road, giving drivers of other cars a chance to steer clear.
When engineers say the autonomous systems aren’t yet ready, regulators should listen. Only this year did the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration begin requiring tracking and regular monthly reporting of crashes involving autonomous vehicles, perhaps a step toward more regulation. The agency has also ongoing investigations into about three dozen crashes involving vehicles using driver-assistance systems. The vast majority of those involved Teslas, including 10 fatalities.