Teslas may be safe, but what about the rest of us?

With his tweets about flamethrowers, tunnels and a plan to build a “cyborg dragon,” Elon Musk has shifted himself into ludicrous mode. Meanwhile, his car company may be putting people in danger.

That company, Tesla, makes the safest cars on the road, according to none other than the CEO himself. A big part of what Musk says makes Teslas so unbelievably safe is a driver-assist feature called Autopilot.

Autopilot, like many similar features being developed by other automakers, has great potential. But there’s a reason that other automakers don’t roll out such technology without the kind of lengthy, exhaustive testing that Tesla is apparently counting on the general public to conduct.

A crash on Friday in Utah shows what’s wrong with Tesla’s strategy. The driver of a Model S, a 28-year-old woman, says she had Autopilot engaged and admits looking at her phone when the car slammed into the back of a fire truck that was waiting at a red light.

Because Autopilot was involved, the incident has naturally gotten more attention than most crashes in which the only injuries were a broken ankle for the Tesla driver and whiplash for the fire truck driver. Musk responded in what has become his usual fashion, which is to blame the media for being unfair and riling up his many fans, some of whom have probably read just the headline and then skipped to the end of this column to find my email address so they can accuse me of shorting Tesla stock.

“It’s super messed up that a Tesla crash resulting in a broken ankle is front page news and the ~40,000 people who died in US auto accidents alone in past year get almost no coverage,” Musk tweeted Monday afternoon. He continued: “What’s actually amazing about this accident is that a Model S hit a fire truck at 60 mph and the driver only broke an ankle. An impact at that speed usually results in severe injury or death.”

First off, I haven’t seen any examples of this story being “front page news” anywhere, and most of those other deaths do get covered locally (For the record, Automotive News did not cover this story until police confirmed the driver admitted engaging the Autopilot function). The majority of these stories aren’t national news because they don’t relate to a new technology promoted as saving lives. But beyond that, Musk’s focus on the fact that the driver survived relatively unscathed misses the bigger, more important picture.



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