Opinion: Tesla Autopilot NHTSA investigation headlines are out of control

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There is a difference between slant and straight-up inaccuracy. Slant is unavoidable as it typically relies on a writer’s personal biases. Making connections that could be immediately debunked with the slightest modicum of research, however, is completely avoidable. This was exactly the case on Monday as a wave of negative Tesla news emerged following an announcement that the NHTSA is launching a formal investigation on Autopilot over 11 incidents that involved Teslas crashing into parked emergency vehicles. 

The NHTSA Investigation

The NHTSA’s ODI Resume was very brief and direct. And while the agency did state that it would be evaluating Autopilot for Model S, Model 3, Model X, and Model Y from model year 2014 to 2021, the NHTSA did note that its investigation would involve 11 incidents in the United States. These incidents resulted in 17 injuries and one fatality. 

Tesla prides itself on being a company that focuses intently on the safety of its vehicles, and in this light, investigations that would make systems like Autopilot ultimately safer for the general public would likely be welcomed by the company. Elon Musk, after all, has posted in the past that he agrees with the NHTSA “99.9% of the time.” The Tesla CEO has also specified on Twitter that he thinks the “NHTSA is great.” 

If one were to look at the coverage of the investigation in some mainstream media outlets, however, one would think that things are far more dire. 

The Coverage and Missing Details

It is true that negative stories attract more eyeballs. This is something that has been true even before the days of online journalism. And in this landscape, a company led by a rebel CEO that no longer issues comments on issues is the perfect target. This could be seen in the headlines that immediately followed the NHTSA” s announcement. CNN’s headline, “Tesla is under investigation because its cars can’t stop hitting emergency vehicles,” is a great example of this. It’s sensationalist and it suggests that the issue being investigated by the NHTSA is something extremely grave. And this is just one outlet. 

Other news outlets such as CNBC proceeded to feature Ford former Co-CEO Mark Fields, who proceeded to highlight that the NHTSA’s investigation covers Teslas from a large time period. Persistent Tesla bears were also featured for their take on the news despite their past accuracy on the EV maker. 

Interestingly enough, one of the things that were not mentioned much (if at all) in the general coverage of the NHTSA Autopilot investigation was the state of the drivers in some of the incidents. As aggregated by some Tesla watchers online, a good number of the drivers in the 11 crashes were hardly the most attentive. Two incidents were deemed as DUI cases, for example, and one driver had a suspended license. Four cases involved driver inattention, with one incident having a driver who did not have their hands on the wheel for 3 minutes 41 seconds. The other four incidents have no police report readily available. 

An Unrelated Incident

On the same day as the NHTSA announced its investigation, a Tesla Model 3 was involved in a car crash at a school parking lot in the UK, injuring six people. It did not take long before Reuters, citing a report from The Telegraph, ran with a headline which read “Six injured as self-driving Tesla crashes in school car park in Southern England – Telegraph.” Such a headline immediately raised red flags, the first being that no Teslas owned by consumers today are “self-driving” cars per se. They have advanced driver-assist features, but those still require constant attention. 

This headline grabbed a lot of attention — that much was no surprise. What was unfortunate was that as it became clear that the Tesla involved in the incident could not be a “self-driving” car, Reuters proceeded to issue a retraction on the article, stating that it had updated the story to correct the headline and drop the “self-driving” reference. The publication, however, kept a section of the article which still stated that it remained to be seen if the Tesla that injured six people had a driver behind the wheel at the time of the incident. 

The Perfect Target

Tesla is no stranger to negative reporting, and that’s to be expected. Some negative slant from a reporter covering news about the company is pretty understandable, after all. However, it becomes a bit more difficult to justify errors such as those committed by Reuters about the UK incident. Even a little research on the features of a Model 3 in Europe would show that there are no “self-driving” Teslas right now, after all, and narratives which seem to hint at rogue electric cars are ultimately just as fantastical as they are inaccurate. 

This may not be Tesla’s first rodeo with false news, but it’s not like there is nothing that could be done. Tesla China, for example, has adopted an assertive external relations and legal campaign that pursues false reporting on Giga Shanghai, and it has worked to great effect. Whether a similar strategy would work in the United States is up for question, but there seems to be few reasons remaining why Tesla should just allow itself to be a punching bag for misinformation without even airing its side. 

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Opinion: Tesla Autopilot NHTSA investigation headlines are out of control
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