We are all Tesla‘s beta testers.
Several of Tesla’s vaunted automated navigation features are labeled on its cars’ touchscreens and owner’s manuals as being in “beta” phase, including “Autosteer” “Navigate on Autopilot,” and “Traffic Aware Cruise Control.”
In other words, Tesla — the focus of three deadly crashes in South Florida — remains a work in progress.
Despite their premium pricing, the speedy, high-tech cars are a hot commodity and growing rapidly within their home state of California and beyond. Sales tripled in Florida and nearly quadrupled in the U.S. between 2017 and 2018 as the company introduced more affordable models and ramped up production.
Critics rave about the cars’ power and ease of use and forgive growing pains that have earned the brand low reliability scores from Consumer Reports. Yet, Teslas also consistently earn five-star safety ratings in crash tests by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and five-star owner loyalty scores from Consumer Reports.
In an April 2018 review of Tesla’s newest offering, the Model 3, autoblog.com writer John Beltz Snyder wrote that the car “is proof that EVs [electric vehicles] — even the relatively affordable ones — are far more than just appliances. This is a car that stirs up emotions when driving it, and the fact that it does that well is a great thing, not just for customers, but for the entire image of clean cars.”
It’s because of that enthusiasm, and the car’s status as the vanguard of an all-electric, network-driven, automated transportation future, that so much scrutiny is paid to minor glitches and spectacular failures alike.
A car unlike any other
Formed in 2003, Tesla set out to create a company and car unlike any other. Instead of gas-powered engines or gas-and-electric hybrids, Tesla’s cars would be run by pure electric propulsion, which requires a simpler mechanical architecture and costs far less per mile to run.
Tesla modeled itself more like a software company than a car maker, charging upgrade prices for such premium features that can be activated through updates downloaded from the Internet, including Autopilot and, in the base Model S, expanded battery capacity for longer driving range between charges.
Autopilot and its connected features make Teslas semi-autonomous — meaning its sensors and cameras can read road markings and surrounding vehicles and perform functions such as changing lanes, applying brakes, and following the straight lines and curves of roads. But driver vigilance is still required to take over tasks the system can’t handle, and despite Tesla’s promise to unveil “full self driving” capability later this year, experts say a fully-autonomous Tesla — or any car — that doesn’t require its occupants to pay attention to the road is still years away.
After introducing its first car in 2008 — the high-priced, low-volume Roadster — the company entered the sub-$100,000 market in 2012 with the Model S sedan. The Model X SUV was introduced in 2015, followed by the compact and more affordable Model 3 in 2017.
Even as its appeal grows in Florida, Tesla’s market share here is still minuscule.
While new Tesla registrations nationwide increased from 46,001 in 2017 to 163,771 in 2018, sales in Florida grew at a lesser rate — from 2,866 in 2017 to 8,797 a year later, according to research firm IHS Markit. That’s fewer than one out of every hundred of the 1.3 million new vehicles registered in Florida in 2018, the firm’s data shows.
One thing Tesla owners like: The cars are sports-car fast, able to go from zero to 60 mph in around five seconds. That can lead to trouble — three-quarters of 9,000 Tesla owners in the Netherlands were fined for speeding in 2017 compared with 28 percent of gas-powered car drivers, the electric vehicle website Electrive.com reported.
South Florida crashes
In South Florida, authorities and presumably Tesla are still investigating the three fatal crashes, one involving excessive speed, and two involving flaming batteries. Whether Autopilot played a role in any of them remains unclear.
May 2018, Fort Lauderdale: Two high school students were killed and another was injured after the 2014 Model S they were in went out of control on a curve at more than 100 mph. It twice struck a concrete wall and then a light post. A witness said the car burst into flames after the second collision. Small portions of the car’s lithium ion battery broke apart from the vehicle, which reignited twice after the crash, investigators found.
The owners of the car had it modified so it could not travel faster than 85 mph, but the device that would limit the car’s speed was removed by an employee at a Tesla dealer without the owners’ consent, according to a lawsuit filed in January. The question remains: Why did the battery rupture and explode?
February 2019, Davie: A 2016 Model S left the road “for an unknown reason” on the afternoon of Feb. 24, swerved through three lanes of traffic, hit a median and palm tree and burst into flames, Davie police said. The driver was trapped inside and died. Witnesses said the driver was speeding, but a police report stated the car had been traveling at the 50 mph speed limit.
Whether the driver was using the car’s advance driver system, or “Autopilot,” may not be known for months. Like after the Fort Lauderdale crash, that car’s battery reignited several times, despite the company’s insistence that its battery packs are 10 times less susceptible to fire than gas cars.
March 2019, west of Delray Beach: A 2018 Model 3 driven south on State Road 7 in west Delray on March 1 slid under a tractor trailer that was turning north onto the divided highway. It’s not yet known whether the Tesla’s Autopilot or automatic emergency braking system were engaged at the time, but the crash evoked comparisons to a fatal collision between a Tesla Model S operating under Autopilot and a tractor-trailer that had pulled into the driver’s path in Williston, Fla., near Gainesville, in May 2016.