Just last week, a parked Tesla caught fire at a service center near Pittsburgh. The car had previously caught fire in February, according to a local news report. In February, a man was killed in Florida when the Tesla he was driving crashed and was engulfed in flames.
Tesla introduced Autopilot in October 2015. It scans the road for obstacles and other vehicles, and can brake, accelerate and even pass other vehicles with little input from the driver. It tracks lines on highways to stay within lanes.
Yet it has come under scrutiny in at least four fatal crashes. In 2016, an Ohio man was killed when his Model S crashed into a tractor-trailer crossing a highway in Florida. Autopilot failed to recognize the truck and neither it nor the driver applied the brakes. While one federal safety agency found no technological defect in Autopilot, the National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the system “played a major role” in the crash.
Another accident in which a Tesla collided with a tractor-trailer occurred in Florida earlier this year. In 2018, a California man was killed when his Tesla Model X crashed into a concrete barrier on a highway. And in 2016 in China, a Model S ran into a street sweeper, killing the Tesla’s driver.
Despite Mr. Musk’s proclamations about Autopilot’s capabilities, owners’ manuals warn Tesla drivers that the system “cannot detect all objects and may not brake/decelerate for stationary vehicles, especially in situations when you are driving over 50 m.p.h.” In-car warnings also remind drivers that despite its name, Autopilot is only a driver-assistance system and is not intended to pilot cars on its own.
While Tesla is developing self-driving systems that use only cameras and radar to scan roads and identify obstacles, other companies, including Waymo, the autonomous-car division of Google’s parent company, also use lidar.
Mr. Musk dismissed lidar as “friggin’ stupid” on Monday.
Randy Reibel, chief executive of Blackmore, a maker of lidar systems for cars, disagreed. “With radar you can see something on the road, but you can’t tell how big it is,” Mr. Reibel said. “Cameras can tell you what something is, but not how far away it is. With lidar, you can see an apple or a brick on the road and know it’s an apple or a brick.”
Even lidar is not foolproof. In 2018, a self-driving, lidar-equipped vehicle being tested by Uber hit and killed a pedestrian crossing a road at night in Tempe, Ariz.