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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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