The Autopilot mode in Tesla's (TSLA) electric cars is turning out to be the company's Achilles Heel following news of yet another crash involving a car equipped with the Autopilot feature. On Aug. 28, 2021, a Tesla Model 3 hit a state highway patrol cruiser in Orlando, missing the officer who stopped to help a disabled motorist on the highway. According to Florida Highway Patrol, the Autopilot feature was enabled in the Tesla involved in the crash.

The company is already under investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for a series of crashes involving its cars that occurred between January 2018 and July 2021 across nine states. According to the agency, the August crash was the 12th involving a Tesla vehicle.

Key Takeaways

  • A Tesla Model 3 in Autopilot mode crashed into a state trooper's car on a Florida highway in August 2021, making it the 12th incident involving this Tesla feature.
  • News of the crash didn't have a big impact on Tesla's share prices, sales, or its investment in vehicle automation technology.
  • Other car companies, like Ford, General Motors, Lexus, and Volvo are also testing self-driving technology.
  • Google and Uber have reported crashes and fatalities involving their autonomous vehicle technologies.
  • Autonomous vehicles represent $54 billion of the global car market, which is expected to grow.

How Tesla's Autopilot Feature Works

Autopilot is a standard feature in every new vehicle produced, according to the company. Tesla owners who purchased vehicles without the feature may add the Autopilot and self-driving packages for an additional cost to be added after-market.

According to Tesla:

Autopilot is an advanced driver assistance system that enhances safety and convenience behind the wheel. When used properly, Autopilot reduces your overall workload as a driver. Each new Tesla vehicle is equipped with 8 external cameras, 12 ultrasonic sensors and a powerful onboard computer provide an additional layer of safety to guide you on your journey. Model 3 and Model Y built for the North American market have transitioned to camera-based Tesla Vision, which are not equipped with radar and instead rely on Tesla’s advanced suite of cameras and neural net processing to deliver Autopilot and related features. Model S and Model X continue to be equipped with radar.

The company warns drivers not to be complacent even if their car is equipped with this feature. They should remain fully attentive and keep their hands on the wheel at all times. In fact, the driver should be ready to resume normal operations at any time when the feature is running.

Tesla chief executive officer (CEO) Elon Musk tweeted out statistics claiming that vehicles equipped with the company's Autopilot feature were about 10 times less likely to be involved in a crash compared to the average vehicle. But critics say those statistics lack important context and ignore the age of the average car, which is approximately 12 years, when driven on American roads.

"NHTSA reminds the public that no commercially available motor vehicles today are capable of driving themselves. Every available vehicle requires a human driver to be in control at all times and all state laws hold human drivers responsible for operation of their vehicles," the NHTSA stated.

Tesla warns drivers that the Autopilot and self-driving capabilities aren't designed to make vehicles fully autonomous.

Self-Driving Stats

The NHTSA documented a dozen crashes that reportedly involved Tesla's Autopilot feature—in some cases, fatal. A driver was killed in May 2021 in Southern California after his Model 3, whose automated driving system was partially engaged, struck another vehicle on the highway. But Tesla is hardly the only company testing or producing self-driving capabilities, let alone whose vehicles have been involved in crashes.

Autonomous vehicles are a big part of the automotive industry and represent $54 billion of the global car market, with companies like Ford, General Motors, Lexus, and Volvo dropping their names in the hat. Names like Apple, Uber, Google, and Amazon are also embracing the technology, testing out self-driving vehicles to automate their services. Experts suggest this market has much promise, with the potential to grow about 10 times before 2030.

Google's self-driving capabilities came under scrutiny when one of its self-driving cars was involved in a crash in February 2016. The vehicle, a Lexus SUV, hit a bus while making a lane change at a speed of two miles per hour. Authorities said no one was injured. Another Google vehicle was involved in a collision with another vehicle in May 2018. The van, which had a driver in it, was in self-driving mode when it crashed into another van.

A pedestrian was killed in Tempe, Arizona while walking her bike across the street after she was hit by a vehicle in self-driving mode in 2018. This was reported to be the world's first fatality involving a self-driving vehicle. Authorities stated that the car's safety driver, who was driving for Uber at the time, was "visually distracted" by her cell phone and failed to take control of the vehicle at the time. The company said it suspended its self-driving testing following the incident.

Tesla closed at about $783 per share on Oct. 6, 2021.

Tesla Investors Shrug Off Latest News

Any effect the crashes may have had on the company's stock has certainly waned. Tesla shares traded at $736 following the news of the crash in Florida—relatively unchanged from the previous day.

This is a stark contrast to the previous fears investors had that sent the stock price down. The stock dropped by more than 4% after the NHTSA announced its investigation in mid-August. It fell by 8% in 2019 after the National Transportation Safety Board ruled that the Autopilot feature was engaged during a fatal crash in March of that year. 

Investors' nonchalance to the latest news may be due to two reasons. Even as it has faced multiple safety concerns, Tesla has become an expert at navigating regulation. Most investigations into Autopilot technology have absolved the feature of blame from accidents and crashes of Tesla cars. More importantly, the investigations have yet to hinder sales numbers, which continue to increase on a quarterly basis, for its cars.

Investors may also be holding out hope for Tesla's promised Full Self-Driving technology, which is still in Beta mode. It promises complete autonomy, meaning that drivers can take their hands off the wheel after Tesla's artificial intelligence (AI) system takes over driving functions.