Tesla Model S Vs Semi Trailer: A Cautionary Technological Tale of Troublesome Trepidation

The Tesla Model S and Tesla Model X electric cars are without doubt, the most technologically sophisticated cars on the market today. Aside from being powered by a state-of-the-art lithium-ion battery pack that gives them range in excess of 230 miles per charge, every Tesla made after October 2014 has left Tesla’s Fremont production facility with the necessary hardware to, when paired with Tesla’s sophisticated Autopilot software, give the car autonomous driving capabilities.

Those capabilities not only include things like keeping in the lane on the freeway, automatically responding to changes in traffic flow and taking evasive action in an emergency situation. They include the ability for a Tesla Model S or Model X with Autopilot to park itself without anyone behind the wheel, a feature Tesla refers to as “Autopilot Summon.”

But one Tesla Model S owner — Jared Overton from Lindon, Utah —  is claiming his Tesla Model S and its autonomous driving feature caused his prized Model S to crash into the front end of a parked semi-trailer on while it was supposed to be parked up, causing damage to his car’s windshield and windshield frame. Frustrated to return to his car to find it resting, nose-first under the hitch-end of the trailer, Overton told local news station KSL at the start of the week that he believes his car was something of a rogue vehicle — and he expects Tesla to fix it.

Yet thanks to the always-on Internet connection in every Model S, Tesla says it’s already looked at the vehicle logs and says that the car’s automatic parking system was triggered by the owner before he exited the vehicle. In a letter sent to Overton a week after the incident on April 29, Tesla’s local service center says the accident occurred “as a result of the driver not being properly attentive to the vehicle’s surroundings.”

Autopilot is a clever technology, but needs to be supervised.

Autopilot is a clever technology, but needs to be supervised.

So what happened, and what can we learn from this?

First off, some basic facts. Autopilot is technically, still a beta feature. It’s something that Tesla reiterates whenever publicly discussing the advanced driver assistance package, and it’s something Tesla reminds its owners when they first activate Autopilot on their car. Indeed, before Autopilot can be activated for the first time, Tesla asks owners to read and digitally sign a disclaimer form on their car’s 17-inch touchscreen display.

The user acceptance agreement’s language is direct and unambiguous, and tells owners that even if they are outside the vehicle, they should remain in control of their vehicle by monitoring its automated movement.

This feature will park Model S while the driver is outside the vehicle. Please note that the vehicle may not detect certain obstacles, including those that are very narrow (e.g., bikes), lower than the fascia, or hanging from the ceiling. As such, Summon requires that you continually monitor your vehicle’s movement and surroundings while it is in progress and that you remain prepared to stop the vehicle at any time using your key fob or mobile app or by pressing any door handle. You must maintain control and responsibility for your vehicle when using this feature and should only use it on private property. 

In conventional operation, Tesla Autopark Summon can be engaged via the Tesla Smartphone app, the keyfob or from within the vehicle itself. Once Autopilot has gone through its initial first-run legal agreement, Autopark can be engaged by simply double-tapping the park button on the end of the Model S’ gear selector lever.

Autopilot relies on hardware built into every Model S since October 2014.

Autopilot relies on hardware built into every Model S since October 2014.

Once activated, the car displays a warning in the form of a pop-up dialog box on its centre touchscreen display. It also emits an audible chime, both of which are designed to give the owner ample time to cancel the autopilot request.

The car then waits for the driver and passengers to exit the vehicle, whereupon it locks the doors, folds in its mirrors, and puts its hazard warning lights on. All of which you’d think it would be impossible to miss, as many Tesla owners have already commented. In normal operation, Autopilot Summon activates reasonably quickly once all of the preconditions have been met, and the car will quietly and slowly park itself.

In short, most people would notice their car beginning to move, even if they were walking away from it at the time.

But Overton, still disputing he is to blame for the accident, said that after he exited his vehicle he spent a short period of time talking to a worker at the business he was visiting about his Model S. Together, Overton said they spent between 20 seconds and a minute next to the Model S before moving inside, and says that he would have noticed during this period had his Model S began to move on its own.

Yet Tesla, which has examined logs from Overton’s car, says that he double-tapped the park button before getting out of his car, arming the Autopilot Summon feature as he exited the vehicle. In a letter to Overton which it has made available to the press, it clearly reiterates the warnings given by the standard Autopilot system, and even notes the timeline of events as seen through the car’s extensive sensor system.

Tesla says Overton activated Autopilot Summon

Tesla says Overton activated Autopilot Summon

It says Overton inappropriately used the system, and issued the following statement to Transport Evolved.

Safety is a top priority at Tesla, and we remain committed to ensuring our cars are among the absolute safest vehicles on today’s roads. It is paramount that our customers also exercise safe behavior when using our vehicles – including remaining alert and present when using the car’s autonomous features, which can significantly improve our customers’ overall safety as well as enhance their driving experience.

Summon, when used properly, allows Tesla owners to park in narrow spaces that would otherwise have been very difficult or impossible to access. While Summon is currently in beta, each Tesla owner must agree to the following terms on their touch screen before the feature is enabled:

This feature will park Model S while the driver is outside the vehicle. Please note that the vehicle may not detect certain obstacles, including those that are very narrow (e.g., bikes), lower than the fascia, or hanging from the ceiling. As such, Summon requires that you continually monitor your vehicle’s movement and surroundings while it is in progress and that you remain prepared to stop the vehicle at any time using your key fob or mobile app or by pressing any door handle. You must maintain control and responsibility for your vehicle when using this feature and should only use it on private property. 

Still technically a beta feature, Tesla is careful to caution owners about how and when Autopilot functionality is used, reiterating as often as possible that customers should supervise their vehicle at all times when using Autopilot features. Moreover, it stipulates that Autopilot Summon — and any other autopilot capability where the driver is not behind the wheel — must only be engaged when the vehicle is on private land.

Autopilot Summon is meant to be used on private land only.

Autopilot Summon is meant to be used on private land only.

But here’s the thing. There are lessons that can be learned from both sides from this unfortunate incident.

The first is, unfortunate, that you should not park facing the wrong way on the road. Had Overton parked with his car facing toward the rear of the trailer (as it would if he had parked according to traffic flow) his car would have sensed the trailer and stopped.

Secondly, this edge-use scenario is one which demonstrates that perhaps more sensors are needed towards the upper windscreen area of Model S and Model X. While overhang-type collisions are likely to be rare, Tesla’s system would have, in ideal situations, spotted the overhang of the parked semi-trailer and acted accordingly.

But most importantly, we think Tesla needs to investigate a new way of activating its Autopark Summon feature. People rarely act in the real world as an engineer might expect them to, and double-tapping the electronic park selector — something this author has done before to double-check the brake is operating as expected — isn’t the best way to engage an autonomous driving feature.

Since the world of autonomous vehicles is still relatively new however, we think there’s still room for improvement on both sides, but we’re curious to know what you make of this unusual tale.

Who is to blame? And what lessons can be learned? Leave your thought sin the Comments below.

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  • Andrew Hohmann

    I doubt it will be possible to anticipate all possible obstacles. I doubt engineers can anticipate stupidity. Robots learn what human operators teach them. If the human in this case has not learned how to park on the wrong end of a semi trailer, how can one expect the car to learn?

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