The evening of March 19 near Wawa in Palm Coast a Tesla backed into a Flagler County Sheriff’s patrol car during a traffic stop, and very slightly damaged the Tesla. The patrol car was not damaged. Two girls, 15 and 14, were in the Tesla. No adults were. The Tesla can be self-driving. But the girls were driving illegally.
This afternoon, the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office issued a release headlined “‘Smart Car’ Operating on Autopilot Backs Into FCSO Patrol vehicle,'” suggesting that the “Smart Car” is not so smart after all. But the headline is misleading, if not outright inaccurate: a Tesla cannot back-up on autopilot. A lot more was going on in that incident, as even the official sheriff’s incident report notes–the incident report is prepared by law enforcement officers, the release by the department’s PR office–almost all of it necessarily involving the actions of one of the two teens on board, who clearly had little experience either driving or driving in Palm Coast. (They said they were traveling from South Carolina.)
But headlines of the sort, rapidly snapped up and disseminated on social media or TV news and other websites without additional reporting, can foster misconceptions or fears about self-driving cars, exaggerate their hazards and disproportionately highlight a crash involving autopilot-equipped vehicles in a nation that tallies 6.7 million traditional vehicle crashes a year.
Self-driving vehicles are theoretically safer and less prone to crashes than traditional cars, considering that 93 percent of vehicle crashes are due to human error. “Automated vehicles have the potential to remove human error from the crash equation,” the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration states. Hard data on how much safer they are remains elusive for lack of enough miles driven outside test tracks to make appropriate comparisons with traditional vehicles. But that makes accurate reporting on incidents involving potentially self-driving cars more essential, as those incidents are forming the basis for a better understanding of the vehicles and the human interactions they still require.
According to the sheriff’s incident report, the incident involving the Tesla with the two teenagers took place at 10 p.m. on Friday. A deputy initiated the traffic stop when he saw the Tesla traveling on the wrong side of the road after driving out of the Wawa gas station. There was compliance, but the car then somehow backed into the patrol car.
The incident report is focused on the teens’ version of what took place–two teens who had, according to the report, deceived their parents and taken the car without permission to drive across state lines. They claimed they had left Charleston to go to West Palm Beach, where one of the girls’ father lives. When a deputy approached the vehicle, he saw one girl in the backseat, the other in the passenger seat.
Their account revealed at least three claims that are untrue as far as operating a Tesla: its reverse function does not operate without active human intervention. The car does not drive itself if there’s no one in the driver’s seat. And there’s no autopilot function when a Tesla is driving out of a parking lot.
When the deputy noticed that neither girl was in the driver’s seat and asked who was operating the vehicle, they said the Tesla “operated itself with auto pilot.”
“Of course it’s not possible,” Nick Klufas, a Palm Coast City Council member who’s been driving a Tesla for six months, said. There would have had to be a girl in the driver’s seat for the vehicle to drive, which means one of the girls lifted herself out of the seat on the approach of a deputy–after putting the car in reverse. “There is no autopilot in reverse,” Klufas said. Human action is required to put the car in reverse. “That was a human action that caused the crash.” (Relying on his experience with the vehicle, FlaglerLive asked Klufas to review the incident report the release and the video the Sheriff’s Office shared before he was interviewed.)
The girls said they had been at Wawa. One of them explained that she was in fact in the driver’s seat, coming out of Wawa, but one of them turned on the autopilot, “removed herself from the front seat of the car and sat in the back while the vehicle was still moving. The vehicle drove in an opposite lane of traffic and then backed in” the deputy’s vehicle.
“There’s no autopilot there either,” Klufas said, regarding the vehicle’s ability to come out of a parking lot. So once out of the parking lot, if the girl decided to put the car on automatic pilot and pulled herself out of the seat, she would have been doing so against all Tesla directives or capabilities: the vehicle must have human interaction to make right-hand turns or turns at stop signs in city driving. “It’ll stop at a stop sign but it won’t actually make the turn,” Klufas said. (A driver is required to have a hand on the steering wheel at all times, or else the vehicle prompts an alert).
More likely, whoever was in the driver’s seat realized she was going into an opposite lane of travel, and as a deputy was pulling behind her, reversed and pulled herself out of the driver’s seat. Activating the reverse also brings up a 180-degree video view of the everything going on on the sides and behind the car, so the driver may have been attempting to “see where the police officers coming up to the car” were, Klufas said.
The vehicle operated as intended: it backed up only a short distance, the crash left no mark on the patrol car, and the Tesla stopped. “There’s really no damage,” a deputy at the scene said, denoting only a scratch.
At any rate, one of the girls changed her story and said that the girl in the back seat had actually been in the front seat “until the vehicle traveled into the wrong lane,” almost certainly suggesting that, given the vehicle’s requirements for human action from the point where it left Wawa, the girl herself drove it into the wrong lane: the vehicle makes highway driving much easier, but it nevertheless requires vigilance in city driving.
“I can completely understand how these girls made it from South Carolina to Flagler, then they screwed up the part where they had to drive,” Klufas said.
Tesla’s own directives are explicit about the autopilot function: “Autopilot is a hands-on driver assistance system that is intended to be used only with a fully attentive driver. It does not turn a Tesla into a self-driving car nor does it make a car autonomous. Before enabling Autopilot, you must agree to ‘keep your hands on the steering wheel at all times’ and to always ‘maintain control and responsibility for your car.'”
Even without necessarily knowing all that, a deputy at the scene was appropriately skeptical, describing the Tesla in that circumstance, with one girl in the passenger seat and the other in the back seat, as a “supposedly self-driving car.”
When deputies contacted Jennifer Crummie, one of the girls’ mother, she said she was “unaware of her daughter leaving the state and believed that she was at her grandmother’s house,” according to the incident report. The other girl did not initially provide accurate information about her parents, but her mother, Michelle White, was eventually identified and contacted.
It is unlikely, if one of the girls’ parents owns the vehicle, that that parent would have been unaware of the vehicle’s whereabouts. Klufas said Teslas are connected to their app on the owner’s phone. “There’s no way they could’ve been like, where’s my Tesla, not knowing where to find it,” he said.
The app is essentially the vehicle’s key. The app tracks the vehicle–and can literally bring the vehicle to a crawl or to a stop. In one case, a Tesla owner locked a thief inside the car until cops arrested him. In another, the owner used the app to lead cops to the car’s location after it had been stolen and used in a burglary.
The children were turned over to the Department of Children and Families, and one of them cited for driving without a license.
“These kids are very lucky that no one was hurt and their actions didn’t have more serious consequences,” Sheriff Rick Staly said. “It doesn’t matter if you are driving a ‘smart car’, driving without a license is still against the law. I hope these kids have learned a valuable lesson and I am grateful that
no one was hurt and only minimal damage occurred to their vehicle.”