One Crushed Tesla, One Big Dispute


Autonomous features are one of Tesla’s big selling points, even if they aren’t all part of the production software for the firm’s cars. One such feature is Summon, which is designed to allow a driver to park in a narrower space than would normally be possible, by autonomously entering and exiting a parking space with the owner outside the car.

As it’s in Beta, owners have to sign up to enable the feature and are given specific instructions on how and where it can be used. Even so, one owner has ended up with a rather crushed EV and the resultant dispute over who is to blame isn’t going to do Tesla’s reputation much good, whether it’s in the right or the wrong.

The issue here is whether Tesla’s implementation of the self-parking feature fails safe. Of particular importance when it is designed to be used without a driver in the car.

The owner claims that he hadn’t initiated the Summon request, Tesla disagrees. That raises all sorts of issues. Tesla’s logs of activity, taken from the vehicle itself, suggest that all of the requirements for the self-parking feature were met by the owner. And they do seem pretty comprehensive.

Far from conclusive though.

The problem seems to me that Tesla’s process for initiating Summon is too close to the normal process of exiting a vehicle, close enough that an owner could inadvertently enable the feature. The process of double tapping the gear selector, selecting park and releasing the brake pedal is 95% of what every automatic transmission vehicle owner does when exiting their vehicle. The double press of the gear selector stalk seems like something that could be done entirely accidentally.

Rather than getting into a dispute with one of its customers, Tesla needs to suck it up and accept that, in this case the logs are irrelevant.

A self driving feature must be both fool proof and fail safe. In the case of Summon that patently isn’t true. Fortunately the only damage here is to the company’s reputation, the owner’s ego and of course the sheet metal itself.

Fixing the feature seems easy to me. If the driver isn’t in the car Tesla needs to enable some form of secondary control to ensure the vehicle is doing exactly what the owner wants it to do. That could be a button on the keyfob that needs to be pressed throughout the self-parking manoeuvre or a control in the car’s smartphone app.

Autonomy is an extremely difficult feature to enable for something as potentially dangerous as a motor vehicle. This strikes me as the first of very, very many disputes that will arise as the technology broadens and matures.