Why are people crashing in the Tesla? An owner says it’s not the car

Investigations into several recent serious crashes involving all-electric Tesla cars focused in part on the vehicle’s semi-autonomous features, Autopilot and Traffic Aware Cruise Control.

But a Miami-Dade Tesla owner and enthusiast said while those features make driving easier, the Elon Musk-owned company is adamant that drivers stay alert with their hands on the wheel at all times.

When these features are activated, the car will stop for obstructions in the path. But it will not stop at stop signs or red lights.

That’s up to the driver.

“When you first buy the car, Autopilot is disabled by default. And, when you go to turn it on for the first time, you will get a screen on the main screen with a message that tells you what Autopilot’s limitations are,” said Craig Merwitzer, a Palmetto Bay resident who has owned his Tesla Model S since 2017. “And, this car has never stopped at stop signs or red lights.”

Tesla states on its website that Autopilot is “designed to reduce fatigue by helping drivers stay in their lane, while also ensuring that they keep their hands on the wheel.”

Investigators are looking into whether Autopilot played any role in recent fatal Tesla crashes, including one in Key Largo in April when a Boca Raton man on his way to Ocean Reef blew through a stop sign at the intersection of Card Sound Road and County Road 905 and killed a woman standing outside of a pickup truck parked on the shoulder.

Merwitzer, a member of an online group of Tesla enthusiasts called Tesla Tips and Tricks, gets frustrated when he reads news reports that suggest the driver-assist features might be the reason for the crashes. It’s the driver’s responsibility to pay attention, Merwitzer said.

In his opinion and based on his experience, some Tesla drivers involved in crashes while the features were engaged were “expecting it to do something that it wasn’t intended to do.”

Burned out Tesla Model S
The 2014 Tesla Model S in which teenagers Barrett Riley and Edgar Monserratt Martinez died in a fiery May 8 crash on Fort Lauderdale’s Seabreeze Boulevard National Transportation Safety Board

Not only are the features safe when used as Tesla intended, they also help prevent crashes caused by driver error from those operating conventional cars and trucks, Merwitzer said.

“There have been cars on the road ahead that have done moves that would cause an accident, and Tesla has picked up on those, and will take appropriate action without driver confirmation in order to avoid an accident,” he said. “This car has saved me from crashes.”

To Merwitzer, his Tesla offers an ideal driving experience, and the technology built into the car will be the norm in most cars on the road sooner rather than later. And, that will result in less serious crashes on the road.

The Tesla is also a dream car for tech lovers like Merwitzer. It’s basically a computer on wheels, which Tesla updates remotely with new features similar to the way cell phone companies update mobile devices.

On a recent drive with Merwitzer, he explained the way features like Traffic Aware Cruise Control work. He sets a maximum speed limit on his car, and the car basically takes over from there. On a back road, he set his Tesla at 35 mph.

“If the guy in front of me goes 100, I will stay at 35. If he slows down under 35, we will slow down under 35. I have the distance, you can see over at the left hand side, right now, we’re going to stop on our own,” he explained. “If he slows down, we slow down. If he speeds up, we speed up to the maximum distance I have set.”

Autopilot, he said, is a “suite of two features — traffic aware cruise control and Autosteer.

“You can use traffic aware cruise control, which we call TACC, we can use TACC without Autosteer. You want to cruise in an area without worrying about speeding, you just set your TACC at the speed limit and the car will have start and stop on its own, if there’s a car in front of you,” he said, reiterating that the car will not stop at a stop sign or red light if it is the only vehicle approaching the intersection.

He described Autosteer similarly as he drove on the Palmetto Expressway:

“If I want to change lanes, I’m going to go ahead and turn on the turn signals. The car checks the adjacent lanes. If it’s safe, we go ahead and change. I keep a hand on the steering wheel at all times, because you’re supposed to. The central dash, you can see the car in front of us. You can see both cars in front of us. You can see the truck. You can see it change lanes.”

This is all made possible by multiple cameras and sensors built into the car, noting that Navigate on Autopilot will shut off when the car exits the highway.

The car also exits the highway on its own and eventually shuts down Navigate on Autopilot.

Some Tesla critics say the car is not practical on long trips because its range is limited and recharges take too long compared to fueling up a conventional internal combustion engine car or truck. Merwitzer counters that the nationwide recharging infrastructure is so vast now, that argument no longer applies.

“You go to a hotel or a Whole Foods, they have a charger in the parking lot,” he said. “They let you charge for free. It’s very slow. Not meant to go on a trip. But if you go to the grocery store and you’re kind of low on electric, you can plug in there, and by the time you’re done with your grocery shopping, you have enough electricity to get home.”

Related stories from Miami Herald