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Tesla Autopilot In Taiwan Crashes Into Overturned Semi

Ben Parker

A view of the Tesla Model 3 halfway into the roof of the overturned semi truck. Local news coverage reported that the driver ended up safe and unharmed.

Credit @HandWashingRooster

Article Highlights

In security camera footage released from a Taiwanese highway an overturned truck lays across two lanes of the freeway as a Tesla Model 3 approaches at full highway speed. The electric vehicle unflinchingly barrels into the side of the overturned semi-truck. 

Opponents of Tesla have begun to speak out against Autopilot using this as an example of the drawbacks of relying on ai. 

Proponents of Tesla, note the fact that the driver, although going at full highway speed, walked away from the crash unscathed. This crash is one of a few crashes that have happened with someone using Tesla’s Autopilot feature.

The local news station covering the story reported that the driver was reported safe and uninjured. The security camera footage is beginning to go viral across social media with some initial videos appearing in the Model 3 Facebook group. 

Many speculators online have made some interesting observations. One such is that a previous Autopilot crash was with a similar white truck. In March of 2019 the driver of a Tesla Model 3 engaged Autopilot, and a mere 10 seconds later crashed into a white semi truck that pulled out in front of the car. The Tesla in this scenario was also going highway speed, and slid underneath the truck killing the driver instantly. This may suggest that Autopilot struggles with white trucks. 

Other observers suggest that Tesla’s current Autopilot system struggles sensing stationary objects. 

There’s a lot of differing views and opinions on responsibility for this crash. Is the fault on the driver, the car, or Tesla itself?

Previous Autopilot Crashes

This is not the first, but is hopefully the last Tesla Autopilot crash. In the fourth quarter of last year, 

[Tesla] registered one accident for every 3.07 million miles driven in which drivers had Autopilot engaged. For those driving without Autopilot but with our active safety features, we registered one accident for every 2.10 million miles driven. For those driving without Autopilot and without our active safety features, we registered one accident for every 1.64 million miles driven. By comparison, NHTSA’s most recent data shows that in the United States there is an automobile crash every 479,000 miles

As they stated above, the rate at which Autopilot crashes happen per mile is much lower than the standard rate. What’s different though is 90% of all crashes are attributed to human error, but what happens when it’s not a human driver? Who’s to blame? In the worst case scenarios there have been deaths. Two of those crashes in 2019 were fatal, making a total of 5 fatal accidents with drivers using Autopilot. A complete list of Tesla fatalities can be found here.

The First Autopilot Death: Gao Yaning 2016

January 20th 2016, a 23-year-old Gao Yaning was driving a Tesla Model S in Hebei China. The electric vehicle was using Autopilot and ran into the back of a street sweeping truck. This first death was incredibly controversial as Tesla had only rolled out the Autopilot system a year prior. The family of Gao has taken legal action against Tesla, and the lawsuit is still being worked out today.

Joshua Brown, Williston, Florida 2016

Only a few months after the first,  the second Autopilot fatality happened in Williston Florida. In May of 2016 Joshua Brown was driving his Model S that collided with a truck. What was reportedly different with this crash than the first was the amount of information regarding the drivers actions previous to his death. According to the report by the NTSB (The National Transportation Safety Board) Brown only had his hands on the wheel for 25 seconds throughout a 37-minute period wherein the car required his hands on the wheel. 

Because Brown didn’t have his hands on the wheel when the car suggested he should, Tesla’s representatives abdicated responsibility for the crash and his subsequent death. In the months following his death Tesla improved the Autopilot system by adding limitations on hands off driving and a few other features that theoretically would have prevented the fatality.

Walter Hwang, Mountain View, California 2018

Another high-profile Autopilot fatality was in March of 2018 when Walter Hwang crashed into a highway barrier, was then hit by two other vehicles which caused the lithium battery to catch on fire. Hwang had previously mentioned to his wife that the car’s Autopilot system had been faulty at the same exact location where he crashed. Reports from his phone showed that he had been playing video games on his phone that drive where he crashed. Hwang was a software engineer at Apple, his family sued Tesla after the crash claiming that the Autopilot system had malfunctioned.

Jeremy Banner, Delray Beach, Florida 2019

Another incident where Tesla’s Autopilot system failed to recognize a large slow moving object obstructing the path of the electric vehicle. On Banner’s morning commute, after putting the car into Autopilot mode, he crashed going 68mph into a slow moving white semi truck crossing a four-lane highway. The top of Banner’s Tesla was sheared off by the truck and Banner was instantly killed.

Samantha Jensen Osceola, Florida 2019

A 29-year-old Samantha Jensen was driving her Tesla Model 3, and apparently was using the Tesla’s lane assist mode when she veered into oncoming traffic and was killed. 

Non Fatal Crashes

There have been many more crashes using Autopilot that were non fatal that Tesla have been able to study and talk with drivers about what happened and how those issues can be resolved in the future. The underlying theme is detection and braking, most often something obstructs the Tesla’s path but is not sensed by the Autopilot system.

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In this specific instance in Taiwan it seems to highlight a weakness in Tesla’s automatic emergency braking system. Somewhere between sensing and acting there’s a lag that has caused multiple crashes similar to this one. 

One Tesla owner (not using Autopilot) crashed the electric vehicle into a brick wall when they accidentally mistook the accelerator for the brake. Multiple drivers have crashed their Tesla’s into firetrucks. Others into other stationary objects. So it seems that Tesla still needs to work on the automatic braking, and those improvements are constantly coming out. 

Looking at the big picture, Tesla cars using Autopilot are much less likely to crash than their human counterparts. In this specific instance the driver was completely safe even after a direct head on collision at highway speed. Tesla Autopilot systems are continually improving, and software rollouts help to make them increasingly more safe.