Tesla Model S

Tesla’s Nightmare Weekend Is a Chance for Electric Automaker To Shine

For a company which prides itself on safety, a zero fatality record, and almost perfect crash test scores, the Independence Day weekend was like a nightmare come true. With not one but two major crashes involving its flagship Tesla Model S — one resulting in three fatalities in a car hit by a Tesla — news outlets all around the world are yet again focusing on the Californian automaker.

Tesla Model S

Friday’s terrible crashes will have shaken Tesla, but we think it will find some innovative solutions

Some reports are yet again questioning the inherent safety of the Tesla Model S, something we feel is both unfair and unfounded given the total number of terrible accidents, massive fires and fatalities which occur every day around the world involving gasoline-powered vehicles.

Unfair or not, Tesla Motor’s [NASDAQ:TSLA] reputation will have been knocked, if not with its fans then with the general public. Yet here at Transport Evolved, we feel the two terrible accidents which occurred on July 4 could be Tesla’s chance to show the world how its unique attitude to car design can ensure that neither accident ever happens again.

In short, we feel the crashes of last weekend will give Tesla a chance to shine.

The details

Early on Friday morning, a Tesla Model S was stolen from an LA Tesla store Tesla service centre and then driven at great speed through West Hollywood. At speeds clocked in excess of 100 mph, the Tesla Model S left a trail of destruction behind it, taking out police cruisers, parked cars, and other road users who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Its final automotive collision — with a Honda Civic — sent it flying through the air, colliding with a light pole and splitting the luxury sedan in two.

The rear of the car then embedded itself into a building, while the front of the vehicle landed on the floor, catching fire. Occupants of multiple cars — including the sole occupant of the stolen Tesla Model S — were seriously and critically injured.

Later the same day on Southbound Highway 14 in Antelope Valley, California, a Tesla Model S travelling at speed rear-ended a Toyota Corolla, causing the Toyota to burst into flames. While the driver of the Model S sustained minor injuries, the driver of the Toyota and two child passengers — aged 13 and 8 — died at the scene. Two other occupants of the Toyota — another adult and a 6-year old child — were rushed to hospital with major injures.

The reality

Tesla prides itself on the safety of its cars

Tesla prides itself on the safety of its cars

Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk has talked again and again about the Model S’ safety features, its exemplary accident record, and until recently, its zero fatality record. The Model S was and is designed as a safe car, and the Model S’ ultra-high crash test scores bear testament to that fact.

No matter how rigorous the testing, how extensive the design, how advanced the technology, it’s simply impossible to design a car that will perform to perfection in every single situation. Aside from the mathematical improbabilities of accounting for the exact set of situations which occurred in accident number 1, it’s impossible for an automaker to prepare or test every conceivable collision with every other car on the road today.

Sadly, no matter how much Tesla or another automaker prepares their vehicles for the real world, as soon as a human steps behind the wheel there is an element of risk involved. In other words, fatalities become a statistical certainty.

Software fix

Unlike other automakers however, Tesla has a unique design feature which makes it possible to roll out solutions to prevent — or at least statistically reduce — some of the issues which may have played a part in Friday’s accidents.

Because all Tesla Model S cars come with onboard telematics and the ability to remotely upgrade the car’s software, Tesla’s first answer to the problem of the stolen Tesla Model S could come courtesy of a software update. At the moment, the Tesla Model S uses a fully automated smart key system. Without a traditional key or even start button, the Tesla Model S unlocks its doors when the smart key is within range. As long as there’s a smart key somewhere in the car and someone is sat in the drivers’ seat, the car is switched on and ready to drive.

Both the Tesla Model S and Tesla Model X have over-the-air software update functionality

Both the Tesla Model S and Tesla Model X have over-the-air software update functionality

Thanks to its fully-integrated implementation to software and hardware however, it wouldn’t take much for Tesla to offer owners the equivalent of two-factor authentication on their cars.  By requiring owners to enter a pin code on the car’s massive touch-screen display before the car will fully switch on after entry for example, Tesla could easily ensure that only those with the key and the correct pin could drive the car.

And since Tesla has added other features to the Model S since it launched in over-the-air updates, including creep control, hill start assist and suspension tweaks, we think adding a two-factor mode would be a simple fix for problem number one.

What’s more, the fix could be rolled out quickly and easily, with minimal impact on owners or Tesla itself.

If typing in a pin code seems too much like a hassle, a valet mode — something Musk has already promised — to reduce the car’s performance, or perhaps even a remote auto-shut off feature could also work. With full control over software, Tesla’s possibilities are endless.

Auto braking

The second Tesla accident from the weekend — one which resulted in the tragic deaths of three people — is something that we’re suspecting already weighs heavily on Elon Musk’s mind.

Like Tesla’s ability to add over-the-air updates however, we suspect Tesla’s answer may be to offer retrofits of autonomous emergency braking for Model S owners.  Conspicuous in its absence, Tesla has yet to offer either adaptive cruise control or emergency braking to its Model S, but given its safety-focused mantra, we’re suspecting it won’t be long before we see it implemented.

Tesla's Model S is constantly evolving

Tesla’s Model S is constantly evolving

Unlike the previous solution, automatic braking — standard on most premium cars today — won’t be a software update for existing drivers, since it requires the addition of a new radar sensor mounted in the front of the car. However, as Tesla has proven in the past with its free battery undercarriage shield modification, hardware updates can and are often retroactively applied in the interests of safety.


Finally, Tesla’s small size as an automaker gives it a massive advantage over other automakers when it comes to rolling out software or hardware solutions to a problem. Since Tesla has always taken a software-influenced approach to car design, it has set out the Model S’ base platform to be eminently upgradeable. With just one platform on which its current Model S and future Model X are designed on, Tesla also benefits from not having to develop multiple solutions for different platforms.

As Tesla's previous response to a major safety issue illustrated, Tesla is quick at resolving safety problems.

As Tesla’s previous response to a major safety issue illustrated, Tesla is quick at resolving safety problems.

As you might expect, Tesla will be eager to see both crashed cars after accident investigators have finished with them, and our hearts and thoughts go out to those who were involved or affected by this weekend’s terrible crashes.

But we’re also keen to see how America’s newest automaker uses its unique methodology to ensure that it never hits the headlines again for the same reason. And we think it will probably succeed, too.


Want to keep up with the latest news in the world of evolving transport? Don’t forget to follow Transport Evolved  on Twitter, like us on Facebook and G+, and subscribe to our YouTube channel.



Want to keep up with the latest news in evolving transport? Don’t forget to follow Transport Evolved on Twitter, like us on Facebook and G+, and subscribe to our YouTube channel.

You can also support us directly as a monthly supporting member by visiting Patreon.com.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on LinkedInDigg thisShare on RedditEmail this to someonePin on Pinterest

Related News

  • D. Harrower

    I can’t stand reactionary responses with little fore-thought. In response to the fires last year, Tesla disabled the lowest height setting on the vehicle’s air suspension. This REMOVED a feature Tesla had been pushing since day one, with no evidence that it would prevent or even reduce the likelihood of similar incidents in the future! But the media was freaking out and they had to do SOMETHING. nnAs a Model S owner, I don’t necessarily think a PIN code would be a bad idea… As long as it’s OPTIONAL. nnI also fail to see how autonomous safety features would have helped in either situation. nnAdaptive Cruise Control, like traditional cruise control, must be ENABLED by the driver in order to function. I doubt it would have been in either situation. nnAutonomous braking only works at low speeds (<30mph), when the vehicle can be stopped quickly. It is intended to protect pedestrians and prevent fender benders, NOT stop vehicles travelling at highway speed (or greater) from hitting things. nnAs you recommended in the original article about the crash, let's show a little decorum and perspective here, and not just toss out random reactionary suggestions that will help nothing.

  • Dennis Pascual

    Small correction. The location that the thief stole the Model S from is a Service Center (the largest one in Southern California, actually) and not a store. (hopefully the thief stole one of the “loaner” fleet vehicles and not someone’s car that was in for service.)nnnI would welcome a valet mode as an optional thing as well.nnnAs for Adaptive Cruise Control, I’d like that too.

    • Valet mode is rumored to be a feature coming with a version 6 software update. If a Model S was car-jacked, a valet mode may not have been enabled. nnAn extreme measure in software would be to have a driver enter a pin-code to drive above the known speed limit (+10%) for the current road. Tesla likely has a database as part of its maps and navigation service.nnWhile speed-limiting would have reduced the severity of the accident, it would not likely have prevented the driver running a “red” light at full speed! (whatever speed the vehicle was capable)

    • Thanks Dennis! Fixed 🙂

  • OmarSultan

    You get the irony of posting a 500+ word rant full of inuendo and unsubstantiated claims and then close with a call for facts, right? 🙂

    • Rory

      This guy, Jim, posts these rants on every news story involving Tesla. He’s a troll.

  • You do realize there were over 421,000 people injured by distracted drivers in 2012? The facts: http://www.distraction.gov/content/get-the-facts/facts-and-statistics.htmlnnYou seem to suggest that the Model S and Tesla drivers are less safe that other vehicles. eg: @Jim5437532 stated “Tesla is known to have problems with the brakes” without quoting an official source, or specific documented case.nInstead throwing out random questions and unproven statements to specific to a particular vehicle, why not get the facts from an independt source that demonstrates vehicles safety features under similar controlled conditions? nnThe NHTSA test and rates vehicles all motor vehicles on US highways, their results show that Model S rates tops in standard tests or higher than many other vehicles. Are you saying we need to increase safety standards of all vehicles?nn

  • Esl1999 .

    Tesla + Crash = FIRE!!! Gasoline Car + Crash = ? Things get distorted when overly spotlighted. There have been plenty of other Teslas in accidents without having ended in a fireball. Those, apparently, aren’t interesting enough to comment on. Reporters have fantasies of being the first ones to expose defects, cover ups or general evil doing. If all of them were Holmes or Columbo, in their quality of investigation, I’d be okay with that. The reality is the need to be first is far more important.

    • You’ll note that we’ve not gone down the route you suggest. Instead, the whole point of our post was to point out how well positioned Tesla is to respond to the challenges these crashes present. With Tesla so keen on safety, we’re confident Tesla will make updates and improvements — not because they are needed, but because Tesla wants to.

      • Esl1999 .

        I commend your measured and rational response to the Tesla crashes. I’m definitely not including T.E. in my rant about the sensational seeking news outlets. When Ryan Dunn died, the Porsche he was in was never called into question. That fiery crash was taken as a matter of fact.

  • Jim, nnnI’m going to have to ask you nicely to tone back your responses. You are making some wild claims which as editor, I can’t see any basis to. nnnPlease refrain from this kind of posting, unless you have some evidence to back up your claims. nnnThanks, nnnNikki.

    • Jim, nnnAs I’ve previously stated. If you don’t have evidence, I’m going to have to ask you politely to refrain from posting these allegations.

  • I don’t know if two factor authentication is necessary all the time, I think that combined with Valet Mode it would work well – enter your PIN number to enable and disable VM. nnService centers could enable the VM when the car comes in for service and only disable it when they need to test the car, or when its time to return the car to the customer.

  • Two factor authentication, valet-mode (remotely activated during a theft) are two great suggestions you make. Actively turning the car off, I can’t go along with, it could create a safety hazard to others to have a stationary vehicle in the middle of an intersection or Interstate/Motorway.nnnDisabling the car after it is turned off or charged at a supercharger would be very satisfactory.nnnTwo factor authentication should be opt-in, just like the code or swipe necessary to access a cell phone. Indeed the cell phone could become part of a two-factor authentication system. Both car and phone get stolen together? Remote wipe phone and put car into valet mode.nnnThe need for these extra security and safety features are partly due to the cars desirability/steal-ability and its enormous power. Tesla should act before someone suggests a lame piece of legislation to ‘fix’ the ‘problem’ as legislators are wont to do.

  • Ed Logan

    “Teslau2019s CEO Elon Musk has talked again and again about the Model Su2019 safety features, its exemplary accident record, and until recently, its zero fatality record.”nnJust to be clear the safety record he was talking about was related to the safety of occupants of the Model S and not to people the Model S hits. So far no occupants of a Model S have died. Closest was the theif that got resuscitated.

  • Donald Eyermann

    The technologies for accident avoidance that the author mentions…and considers are conspicuously absent….where automatic braking “might” have prevented the #2 collision with the Toyota…are as yet not available on a wide range of even the most luxurious autos…costing way more than a Tesla. nnnnSeveral companies have parts of the future autonomous vehicle suite….Ford offers self parking, Mercedes offers lane deviation advisory and impending proximity warning, many cars have anti-skid….but to my knowledge no-one has systems that can take over to prevent an accident. nnnnWhat if your car decided that you were about to have an accident and slammed on the brakes….What about all the cars behind you? I prefer to swerve around a problem, not slow dramatically in traffic (especially on the highway!!), and assume or hope the character behind the wheel of the car behind you is paying attention.

  • Donald Eyermann

    I wonder if anyone advised Tesla that the car was stolen? When did the authorities become aware it was stolen? (relative to the short time before the idiot thief started running into cars, things and people). If a thief steals your car keys, the car doesn’t know its not you behind the wheel. nnI think this is a shoddy effort to throw barbs at Tesla because they dare to be different in a world of many unimaginative followers, some of who write drivel.nnThis dumb writer doesn’t even get the safety record of zero fatalities is related to people in a Tesla. Those in lesser cars could very well die….as well as paying more for fuel, maintenance and contributing to dirtying up the atmosphere.

  • Donald Eyermann

    The only “Nightmare come true” is TROLL writers like this who focus on Tesla to vent their lack of vision for a better future.

  • Joseph Kool

    Is Elon Musk paying for these articles?