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It’s time to notice Tesla’s Autopilot death toll

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In the latest sensational Tesla crash, a Model S sedan flew off a road near Houston on April 17, hit a tree, exploded and burned for hours. Rescue crews found two bodies inside. One was in the passenger seat and one was in the back seat. “There was no one in the driver’s seat,” a police official told news outlets.

Video Transcript

SEANA SMITH: One mover today to the downside is Tesla. Now that stock under a bit of pressure following news out over the weekend that there was a deadly crash involving two people who put the car into what is believed to be the autopilot mode. We want to bring in Rick Newman for a little bit more on this. And Rick, what can you tell us about this and also just what this means for the future here with Tesla when it comes to the-- when it comes to its autopilot features?

RICK NEWMAN: Well, a car went flying off a road near Houston, hit a tree, exploded, and burned for hours. And when they found the victims, there was a body in the passenger seat. And there was a body in the back seat. And there was nobody in the driver's seat. And it's not likely anybody moved around after the crash. So this suggests not only that the vehicle was traveling by autopilot, Tesla's self-driving technology, but possibly that the owner of the car was showing off the technology and not even sitting in the driver's seat.

This is not the way you are supposed to operate autopilot or any self-driving technology because this is nowhere near full self-driving. This is way below that. In fact, technically, Tesla says the driver needs to be able to retake control of the car on a split second's notice. But a lot of Tesla drivers don't drive that way.

And you can argue that it's, in part, because Elon Musk, the CEO, he does kind of promote this as an amazing technology as if it's far ahead of any other technology, which it is not. And as he talks about it as if it is full self-driving, but it is not. There have been several other deaths in Tesla's in which autopilot seems to have been engaged and was a factor. So this is a mounting problem for the company.

ADAM SHAPIRO: Rick, doesn't Tesla have the ability to know whenever a car is in motion that it's produced, whether it's in autopilot or not, isn't there some kind of communication constant between Tesla and the vehicle?

RICK NEWMAN: I think that's true, Adam. I don't know the specifics of the connectivity between Tesla and those cars. But they do gather data on all those cars, which is a genuine advance that Tesla has brought to the market, the real-time connectivity with the cars. So what you might be getting at is, doesn't Tesla have some capability to intervene or to warn a driver if there seems to be something unsafe happening with the vehicles?

And whether you do it one way or another, this is what a lot of safety advocates say Tesla needs to do. They don't say Tesla needs to withdraw autopilot, but Tesla is much more lax with what it lets drivers do for it. Just to give you one example, you don't have to have your hands on the wheel. You can be asleep.

There's no kind of sensor that will tell you to wake up, as there is in General Motors's Super Cruise system, for example, where there's a camera that watches your eyes. And if you nod off or your head drops back, and alert goes off and tells you to get your hands back on the wheel or we're going to disable the system. So what safety experts want to see is more safeguards on this system and a better acknowledgment from Tesla that you can't just sit back and close your eyes and let the car do everything. It's just not nearly there yet.

SEANA SMITH: Yeah, Rick, I want to follow up on that. Do you think investors want to hear directly from Elon Musk about this issue?

RICK NEWMAN: I think investors have given Elon Musk a pass on this. Tesla is the only company that has a mounting death toll, if you will, connected with its self-driving system. Most other automakers have-- are rolling out self-driving systems not as aggressively as Tesla, but they're doing that on purpose. You know, this has been a problem before.

This is not the first time, you know, journalists or analysts have looked at this mounting toll of accidents and fatalities that seem to be related to autopilot and said something need-- there's a problem here. The company needs to change something. Federal safety officials had called-- have called on the transportation department to toughen up the rules, which are very lenient in terms of self-driving technology. And none of this so far has really affected Tesla's stock price.

And Tesla, if this were another automaker, you have to wonder, would there be more scrutiny of this? Because think of all the safety so-called scandals there have been with Ford SUVs and Firestone tires, or General Motors and the ignition switch that was causing crashes, or Lexus and unintended acceleration. Automakers are used to just getting creamed by the press and by class action attorneys, congressional hearings. And that is not happening with Tesla. Personally, I think there needs to be a lot more scrutiny of this. And Tesla needs to answer for this and probably do something.