Tesla Beefs Up Autopilot Safety In First Quarter 2020? Official Data Shows Record Growth

From Tesla's Autonomy Day 2019 presentation. The image is of a wheel hub assembly of an unknown Tesla vehicle, with the company's branding on the red brake caliper being clearly visible. (Image Credit: Tesla Inc)

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Given how modern-day companies often come to reflect their founders' personality, especially if the founders are at the helm of affairs, it's no surprise that electric vehicle and renewable energy products manufacturer Tesla Inc (NASDAQ:TSLA) has seen its fair share of controversy. Tesla's chief executive officer Elon Musk is known for actions that often land him at odds with acceptable social conventions that try their best to govern executive behavior.

Tesla, the company, has been under public and regulatory scrutiny for its driver-assistance software that comes with the ability to let the user have a 'hands-off' experience while driving the company's vehicles. While Tesla itself does not recommend that drivers take their hands off of the steering wheel at any time, accidents, where folks have done precisely this, have taken place.

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These, and others where a Tesla malfunctioned itself have caused a lot of concern – and rightly so. To that end, Tesla has been diligently posting vehicle safety updates on its site to provide anyone interesting with the latest statistics and data. And amidst all the hullabaloo created by Mr. Musk purposefully taking some stock overvaluation out of Tesla's share price yesterday, the company sneakily updated the report for the first quarter of the calendar year 2020 yesterday as well.

Tesla Vehicle Safety Report For First Quarter of 2020 Shows Improvement In Autopilot Accident Rate

Tesla's vehicle safety reports cover three sets of data, classifying accidents according to three different conditions. These are:

  1. Accidents in which both Autopilot and vehicle safety features had been engaged.
  2. Accidents in which only the safety features had been engaged.
  3. Accidents in which neither Autopilot nor the safety features had been engaged.

Therefore, the data lets us determine the efficacy of the company's software-based assistance systems and the nature of the drivers that drive its vehicles and encounter mishaps.

Keeping these variables in mind and analyzing March's data based on these, we can reach several conclusions for the previous quarter. These are:

  1. The safety of drivers driving under Condition 1 has increased.
  2. The safety of drivers driving under Condition 2 has decreased.
  3. The safety of drivers driving under Condition 3 has decreased.
Tesla vehicle accidents – One accident per X million miles, with values for X plotted below
Condition 1
Condition 2
Condition 3

As can be seen above, in the first quarter of 2020, vehicle safety for Tesla's drivers that had both Autopilot and safety features engaged reached a record high. The number of miles before one accident took place increased to 4.68 million in the quarter, exhibiting a rough 52% sequential and a rough 63% year-over-year growth.

Observing events that took place during the quarter do provide some insights that let us ascertain the potential reasons behind this growth. On January 17, 2019, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced that it was reviewing a petition to open an investigation into roughly half a million Tesla vehicles for problems associated with unintended acceleration. The announcement was not the first time Tesla came under the regulatory body's scrutiny, as the NHTSA had previously considered an investigation into the company's vehicles catching fire early last year.

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Accounting for seasonality in the data set above, it's clear that the trends exhibited in this year's first quarter are free from any such factors. Between the fourth quarter of the calendar year 2018 and Q1 2019, Tesla's vehicle safety percentage remained roughly the same, with the drop in accidents under Condition 1 witnessed last quarter being unprecedented in the company's history.

Reaching a conclusion, it is possible that renewed interest in the company's vehicle safety features and Autopilot use has prompted Tesla's engineers to double down on efforts to make Autopilot safer. Additionally, it's equally possible that given renewed regulatory and media interest in Autopilot, drivers that use the feature have become more cautious in their driving and have reduced the benefit of the doubt provided to Tesla's automated driving system during the course of daily use.

Looking at the trend exhibited by accidents taking place under conditions two and three, the pendulum can swing either way. Whichever way that is, it looks like Tesla's Autopilot is on a positive trajectory. As the coronavirus slows down demand and supply for electric vehicles, the company has plenty of time to perfect its software-based systems that not only cover safety and automation but also lie at the heart of a crucial revenue opportunity in the future through Robotaxi.

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