A recent fatal wreck involving a Tesla lit up the internet and Atlanta news stations with reports that no one was in the driver’s seat when the vehicle veered off the road, slammed into a tree and burst into flames. Police said one of the two male occupants of the vehicle was in the front passenger seat while the other was in the back seat.
According to reports, it took firefighters hours and tens of thousands of gallons of water to extinguish the intense blaze that was repeatedly reignited by the electric vehicle’s batteries.
Officials said the Tesla’s Autopilot feature was engaged prior to the wreck in suburban Houston, Texas.
The unique circumstances of the tragic crash spurred debate over the answers to a pair of questions:
- Is advanced driving technology making us lazy and less safe?
- Are electric vehicles more dangerous than gas- and diesel-powered vehicles?
Tesla founder and CEO Elon Musk responded to news of the wreck on Twitter, posting that data examined so far didn’t indicate that Autopilot had been enabled on the vehicle. He noted that the use of Autopilot triggers safety measures that require a person to be in the driver’s seat with their hands on the steering wheel or the Autopilot feature will disengage.
Is advanced safety tech making us less safe?
While Musk might have dispelled worries that his company’s Autopilot feature was at fault for the crash, he didn’t address the issue of whether advanced driving tech is actually counterproductive, eroding driving skills and encouraging complacency behind the wheel that can raise the risk of a motor vehicle crash and injuries.
Many of today’s new cars ding at drivers when the gap in front is too narrow, tug against the steering wheel when you’re threatening to drift out of your lane, or flash ominously when you’re approaching a stopped vehicle too quickly.
Some safety advocates worry that these safety conveniences encourage drivers to disengage from their prime directive: to keep everyone in the vehicle safe. Drivers of vehicles equipped with advanced safety tech don’t check their rearview and side mirrors as frequently because they don’t have to – the vehicle alerts them to blind-spot dangers. Their smart car can even hit the brakes when a front-end crash risk is high.
It is simply too early to fully understand the benefits and possible drawbacks of advanced safety tech. All automakers caution people to continue to be engaged and alert whenever they drive.
Are electric vehicles more dangerous?
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety recently addressed the second of our questions: Are electric vehicles more dangerous than gas- and diesel-powered vehicles?
The IIHS answers with a resounding “no.” It says “evidence is growing that electric vehicles are at least as safe as conventional ones,” adding that “an updated analysis of insurance data shows injury claims are substantially less frequent for (electric) vehicles.”
“We can now say with confidence that making the U.S. fleet more environmentally friendly doesn’t require any compromises in terms of safety,” said IIHS President David Harkey.
The organization also addressed concerns about the Tesla crash in Texas.
An IIHS spokesperson told Consumer Reports that the organization’s crash tests of electric vehicles “have never resulted in a fire or a spike in battery temperature that would indicate the potential for a thermal runaway event.”
The statement undoubtedly calms electric vehicle owners who worried that their investment in cutting-edge auto technology exposed them to enhanced risks of burns or other injuries in a crash.