If the people who know how to predict the trends of the future are correct, driverless vehicles are inevitable. The technology should be able to reduce car crashes by eliminating human errors that are responsible for many injuries and fatalities.
It all sounds great until reality intercedes, as it did last Saturday night, when two men died in a car crash outside Houston, Texas, after a Tesla electric vehicle missed a curve on a residential road, hit a tree and burst into flames.
Neither occupant was behind the wheel when the car crashed — an amazing yet deadly leap of faith for a technology that clearly is still in its early stages. The victims, one in the passenger seat and the other in the back seat, were aged 59 and 69. They had much more life experience than exuberant 20-somethings who would seem more eager to put a driverless vehicle to the test.
What is most unnerving about the crash is not the fact that the car went off the road, but that the vehicle’s battery started a fire that burned for four hours. The Associated Press reported that firefighters at the scene, unable to douse the blaze, contacted Tesla for advice — and somebody at the company recommended just letting it burn itself out.
A car on fire for four hours after crashing is not the image that a manufacturer of electric and driverless cars needs. But the AP reported that Tesla no longer has a media relations department — which is just one more fascinating element of this story. How can a company that’s literally in the driver’s seat of a sweeping change in automotive technology ignore the importance of telling its side of any story?
This fatal accident, while tragic, should not be used to claim defiantly that we should stick with the status quo. If electric vehicles or driverless vehicles prove themselves safe, efficient and less expensive to operate and maintain, the free market will make the decision, just as it did more than a century ago when “horseless carriages” began replacing horses and buggies.
Tesla may be the first big player in electric vehicles, as well as driverless ones, but new competitors are lining up, and existing automakers are coming around. Volkswagen is jumping onto the electric bandwagon rapidly. General Motors, which exemplifies the venerable gasoline-based auto establishment, has announced that by 2035 it will only sell electric vehicles.
What Saturday’s accident does say is that we still have a ways to go before we get to there from here. The AP reported that this weekend’s crash is the 28th in the past several years involving an electric vehicle in which the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has sent investigators.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk said Sunday that the company’s quarterly safety report indicates that Tesla cars using a partially automated driving system are 10 times less likely to crash than a vehicle driven by a human. That’s good news. Now the task is to figure out a way to douse those battery fires much more quickly.