Autopilot Mode Tesla Catches Fire on a Freeway in Moscow, Russia

A Tesla Model 3 that crashed into a parked truck on a Russian freeway went up in flames on August 10. The incident took place at night as Arikapital investment fund director Alexey Tretyakov (41) drove along the busy motorway with his two children, apparently in Autopilot mode.

The massive explosions and consuming flames can be observed in a video recorded by an onlooker. Thankfully, according to local media reports, Alexey and his children were all able to exit the car before the fire started.[youtube|IrJZFT-0FOs]

The accident has elicited a renewed discussion of the safety of Tesla’s controversial Autopilot and the safety of its highly flammable Lithium batteries.

Tretyakov claims he was driving at 62 miles per hour, the speed limit on that section of Moscow’s ring road MKAD. He said in a statement that he had been driving in “driver assistance” mode, though his hands had remained on the steering wheel. However, he claims that neither he nor the Tesla’s sensors spotted the parked tow truck in time to avoid the crash.

The Russian entrepreneur’s vehicle was completely destroyed by the flames. His injuries were slightly more serious than those suffered by his children, and he had to be hospitalized.

As Tesla faces increasing regulatory scrutiny over deadly fires following crashes, the company continues to claim that these types of events are “rare.” On the other hand, the reliability of the kind of sensors used in Autopilot mode has been a source of controversy not only for Tesla, but also for Uber and other companies competing in the self-driving car sector.

A combination of both factors can be deadly: Autopilot failing to avoid a crash and Lithium batteries causing dangerous fires following a collision. The Moscow accident could have ended in a tragedy like many other Tesla crashes in Europe and North America over the last few years.

New automotive technology can be greatly beneficial, but the race to become a leader in self-driving software has likely caused some companies to dismiss certain safety concerns in favor of quicker results.

In particular, several Teslas have been known to crash into parked vehicles while being operated in Autopilot mode. Analysts have pointed to the sensors’ frequent inability to tell shadows from objects or to detect dangerously approaching vehicles under certain conditions.

Russia insiders have noted that bad news about Tesla is good for Russia, a country that thrives on oil sales. Additionally, according to one commentator, “bad news for a U.S. company helps Russian propaganda efforts.”

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