Motorcycle rear-ending raises questions on Tesla vehicle type approval in Europe
A traffic accident in Norway, involving a Model S with Autopilot engaged, two other vehicles, and a motorcycle, has prompted questions as to whether testing of Tesla's Autopilot system sufficiently took into account two-wheeled vehicles. This follows recent official tests in Germany that characterized this feature as a "traffic hazard."
The Federation of European Motorcyclists' Associations (FEMA), in co-ordination with the Koninklijke Nederlandse Motorrijders Vereniging (KNMV) and the Motorrijders Actie Groep Nederland (MAG NL) motorcycle clubs, has issued a formal letter to the Dutch vehicle authority RDW inquiring whether testing procedures of autonomous vehicles take into account two-wheelers.
Similar action had been undertaken earlier by the Norwegian riders' organization NMCU, directing questions towards the transport minister, Ketil Solvik-Olsen, and Tesla co-founder and CEO, Elon Musk. This was sparked by an accident on the E18 road to Drammen, Norway, where a Tesla Model S with Autopilot engaged rear-ended and seriously injured a female motorcyclist on July 27.
The reason for this action taking place in the Netherlands has to do with EU policy. Any manufacturer wanting to import a vehicle into the EU needs only to obtain a European whole vehicle type approval in one member state; this documentation is then automatically valid throughout the Union. Tesla obtained it by the RDW, hence the involvement of local motorcyclist organizations, and the country's vehicle authority being the primary recipient of the letter.
According to FEMA, it had reached out via email to the RDW on the same subject in March, without ever receiving a response. For motorcyclists the problem is the lack of evidence that Tesla's self-driving hardware and software were developed in tests that included motorcycles. Instead, actual events seem to be proving otherwise, as the two Dutch organizations, KNMV and MAG NL, are claiming knowledge of a number of other accidents or near-accidents directly tied to Tesla's Autopilot.
Merely a week before the FEMA letter, a small scandal was unfolding in Germany after the magazine Der Spiegel published a previously unseen report from the Federal Highway Research Institute (BASt) on the Tesla Model S Autopilot. The German tests had started as soon as the first fatal accident involving the system was reported in May in the US. With an estimated 3,000 Tesla Model S cars sold in Germany, the authorities were understandably obliged to look deeper into the matter.
After many thousands of kilometers of testing, BASt reportedly concluded that Autopilot represents a significant traffic hazard. Judging that is was not designed for complex urban traffic situations, the report declared that the car's sensors are too short-sighted to cope with the reality of German motorways.
The federal agency in charge of motor transport evaluated the research institute's results and responded swiftly, proposing that the government provisionally suspend Tesla's type approval. Although this didn't happen, German Model S owners are reported to have received official federal correspondence urging them to remain vigilant while the Autopilot system is engaged.
The question posed by Der Spiegel to the German transport minister Alexander Dobrindt asking why he knowingly – according to the magazine – ignored the report, is very similar to the one that FEMA is asking the Dutch authorities. Actually its letter contains a series of queries, culminating to the final question that sums it all up: why a car equipped with advanced safety elements that may be insufficiently tested was allowed on public roads?
FEMA supports its arguments American research conducted by John F. Lenkeit of Dynamic Research, which concludes that forward collision warning systems for automobiles fail dramatically to detect motorcycles, providing inadequate results in 41 percent of tested cases, against only 3.6 percent for passenger cars.
It then proceeds to demand that Advanced Driver Assistant Systems (ASAD) must always be tested with two-wheelers as well, especially since there are several other manufacturers currently developing self-driving technology. Taking it one step further, FEMA suggests that Tesla should have its approval suspended until it can guarantee the safety of other road users.
And just as things are heating up for Tesla's Autopilot in Europe, the California Department of Motor Vehicles (CDMV) has ordered Tesla to cease and desist from advertising said system as self-driving, automated or autopilot. As a vehicle rated at level two in ASAD technology in the US, it is not officially considered capable of self-driving without the driver paying any attention – that is reserved for levels three to five, according to a scale adopted by the US federal government and the auto industry. Claiming to do so would therefore be misleading on behalf of Tesla, argues CDMV.
Tesla's response to the above? After suggesting that is has always been clear that its Autopilot does not make a car autonomous any more than its namesake makes an aircraft autonomous, on October 19 the company announced that every Tesla produced from this point on will include full self-driving hardware, which will allow fully autonomous capabilities to be bestowed upon the vehicles via a software update, once it has been developed.