Fully autonomous or self-driving cars are both a dream and a nightmare. The stuff of science fiction still has a long way before becoming reality, especially with practical and legal hurdles that carmakers like Tesla have to overcome. Technologies like its Autopilot and upcoming FSD, short for Full Self-Driving, are meant to reduce vehicular accidents that are mostly due to human error. Unfortunately, as the most recent fatal crash demonstrates, it might not be enough to save humans from themselves.
A 2019 Tesla Model S traveling at high speed north of Houston failed to make a slight curve and went off the roadway. It crashed into a tree and burst into flames, a fire that took fighters four hours to finally put out. Two male bodies were recovered inside and their positions in the car don’t bode well for Tesla’s self-driving features.
According to authorities, one of the passengers was sitting in the front passenger seat while the other was in the back seat. Reconstructionists already discounted the possibility that the impact would have thrown the passengers into their final positions. In other words, there was a very high possibility there was no one in the driver’s seat behind the wheel.
It is still unknown whether Autopilot or FSD or both were enabled at the time of the impact but it still represents a misunderstanding of these much-advertised features. Tesla’s official documentation and statement insist that there should always be someone ready to take control at any moment, which presupposes that someone is actually in the driver’s seat. There is definitely a level of miscommunication and misunderstanding if people start presuming that even Full Self-Driving means they can just sit back and relax in any seat.
Another complication that the incident revealed is how ill-equipped responders are in handling electric vehicle fires. Harris County Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman revealed that normal vehicle fire would be under control in minutes but it took four hours, 30,000 gallons of water, and a call to Tesla before they were able to put this one out.