Elon Musk has a plan to end the Tesla Autopilot safety debate

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A driver rides hands-free in a Tesla Motors Inc. Model S vehicle.
A driver rides hands-free in a Tesla Motors Inc. Model S vehicle. Credit: Christopher Goodney/Bloomberg

Lost in Elon Musk's circus of an earnings call on Wednesday was an important Autopilot development that could alter the course of self-driving cars. In a first for any carmaker, Tesla Inc. will soon begin reporting its Autopilot crash statistics publicly—and update it every quarter. This could change the way people perceive automated driving systems and serve as a model for other companies as the world embarks on its grand experiment with self-driving cars.

The value of Tesla's new metric, however, will depend entirely on how the data are provided.

Tesla's Autopilot is arguably the most comprehensive package of driver-assistance features available in mainstream cars today. In the right conditions, it will maintain the vehicle's course, adjust speeds appropriately and change lanes at the flick of a turn signal. Because Tesla has been willing to push its features farther and faster than other companies, media attention has come down like a hammer whenever Autopilot has been linked to a serious crash.

Take the deadly Autopilot accident in March, when Autopilo steered an apparently distracted driver directly into a concrete divider. The news coverage was relentless and led to an ugly public spat between Tesla and safety investigators.

In its defense, Tesla argued that Autopilot decreases the risk of crashes. The company based those claims on a January 2017 analysis by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). There's just one problem: The NHTSA didn't parse the rates of crashes while Autopilot was engaged, and the crash reductions shown by its investigation may be attributable to unrelated safety features that were introduced at the same time.

Tesla has seen a steady increase in Autopilot use since the feature made its debut in 2014; drivers now rely on it for a third of highway miles driven, Musk said Wednesday. When Autopilot has received negative press around an accident, however, there's a dip in its use. "That's not cool. That's why I get upset," Musk said after criticizing media coverage of the recent fatality. "The statistics are unequivocal that Autopilot improves safety."

"That's why I get upset. The statistics are unequivocal that Autopilot improves safety."

Tesla harvests a tremendous amount of data from customer cars daily. If a vehicle passes through a construction site, it may send back photos and data showing how the situation was interpreted by Autopilot. Crashes are recorded, as are statistics about everyday driving. Tesla collects data even when Autopilot isn't engaged, all in the name of training the function's machine-vision programs.

In fact, Tesla collects so much data that it would be easy for the automaker to cherry-pick statistics that make Autopilot appear safer than it really is. Even a statement as simple as "people are less likely to be involved in accidents while Autopilot is engaged" could be misleading if drivers tend to rely on Autopilot more in ideal driving conditions, rather than challenging ones, and the distinction isn't taken into account.

For Tesla's new safety reporting to be useful, the methodology must be clear and fair. Ideally, the company would offer its data and analysis for independent review. Plenty of skilled academics would gladly volunteer. If Tesla does this right, they would have that data at their disposal to show once and for all whether driving with Autopilot engaged is as safe on the same roads, in the same conditions, as driving without it.

It's possible that Tesla will find that driving on Autopilot actually reduces safety—perhaps because drivers get complacent about their responsibility to watch the road. In that case, Tesla should own up to the shortcomings and see what it can do to keep drivers on task. There should be a public discussion about how much safety we'd be willing to sacrifice for the convenience. (We've already made such bargains with entertainment systems, cruise control—even the radio.)

However, if Autopilot is truly as good as Musk claims—if driver safety actually improves when Tesla owners flip the switch—then this move to make the data public is critical for changing laws, behavior and the public's perception of what's safe and what isn't. Musk is right: Autopilot has been at the heart of some serious, and sometimes irrational, controversies. But he has total control over the information that can put an end to the debates and make our roads safer. Let's see how he does it.

—Bloomberg News

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