Good news, bad news for electric vehicles

Two types of vehicles are currently generating the most interest among consumers: electric vehicles (EV) and self-driving vehicles. EV sales were up 44.8 percent in the first quarter of 2021 over sales a year ago. Nearly 100,000 EVs were sold in the quarter, a record.

No auto brand today outshines Tesla in the hot EV market. The company’s vehicles include electric-only propulsion as well as a standard – and controversial – self-driving feature called Autopilot.

The Autopilot system was recently prominent in Port St. Lucie news reports about a fatal motor vehicle crash involving a Tesla that officials believe was on Autopilot when it veered off a Texas highway, slammed into a tree and burst into flames. The two men inside were killed.

No driver

Officials said it appeared that neither man was in the driver’s seat at the time of the fiery crash. One man was in the front passenger’s seat and the other was in the back seat.

Many people wondered if it’s even possible to get a Tesla to drive itself with no one in the driver’s seat.

Within days, a Consumer Reports engineer showed it is indeed possible. He defeated the vehicle’s safety checks by sitting on top of the buckled driver’s seatbelt, placing weights on the steering wheel (all Tesla steering wheels are equipped with sensors to detect the presence of hands) and then, without opening any doors, sliding over to the passenger’s seat. (If the engineer had opened a door, the Autopilot system would have disengaged.)

He was then able to get the Tesla to drive itself on Consumer Reports’ test track.

Backlash

It should be noted, however, that the engineer’s trickery was the target of backlash. Critics said virtually no one would go through those steps to defeat the vehicle’s safety system and put themselves in harm’s way.

Tesla warns its customers that when using Autopilot, they must be fully engaged in the driving process, ready to take over at any signs of imminent roadway danger. They shouldn’t be watching movies or napping.

The self-driving Autopilot system is simply not sophisticated to be truly and safely autonomous, as the deadly Texas wreck showed.

Right before the fiery wreck

It should also be noted that just a few days prior to the crash, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety had announced that “evidence is growing that electric vehicles are at least as safe as conventional ones.”

The vehicle-testing organization said EVs “are as safe as or safer than gasoline- and diesel-powered cars” and that the organization “now say(s) with confidence that making the U.S. fleet more environmentally friendly doesn’t require any compromises in terms of safety.”

Safety technology that works

Electric vehicles typically include advanced safety systems such as automatic emergency braking, blind-spot detection, lane-keeping assistance, rear-view camera systems and more.

IIHS says auto emergency braking by itself reduces bodily injury claims by 16 percent and property damage claims by 11 percent.

So yes, on one hand, there’s very encouraging news that advanced technology makes drivers and passengers safer by reducing the number of auto accidents – and minimizing the severity of wrecks by reducing vehicle speeds before impact.

On the other hand, the tragic Texas crash makes it plain that self-driving technology is not nearly ready for prime time and that no Tesla owner should attempt to replicate Consumer Reports’ dangerous trick.