Crash on L.A. freeway is another reminder that Tesla vehicles are not self-driving cars

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A Tesla sedan slammed into a fire truck on Los Angeles’ heavily trafficked 405 freeway, on Monday. 

Such an incident on this accident-prone highway wouldn’t normally be newsworthy, but an official Twitter account for the fire department in question reported the driver was operating in Tesla’s autopilot mode. The California Highway Patrol (CHP), who responded to the accident, confirmed with Mashable that the driver claims he was operating in Autopilot mode. The CHP is currently investigating if Autopilot was actually in use. 

Tesla’s autopilot system, however, is still progressing and requires drivers to be prepared to grab the wheel and react to circumstances at all times. 

A Tesla spokesperson, in a statement to Mashable, provided this succinct message:

“Autopilot is intended for use only with a fully attentive driver.”

It’s unknown whether the Tesla driver was truly negligent while operating in autopilot mode, or if another factor contributed to the accident. It’s also possible the Tesla wasn’t actually in autopilot mode, even though the driver thought it was. Either way, the Tesla Model S — Tesla’s much acclaimed all-electric, high-speed, luxurious sedan — was adequately smashed and mangled during the collision. Incredibly, fire officials reported no injuries. 

Tesla plans for its autopilot system to one day be truly autonomous — meaning drivers can expect their Tesla to be fully self-driving, like a chauffeur. For now, Tesla’s software is still in what’s classified by the U.S. National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) as a “Level 2 automated system.” This means that Tesla’s autopilot is “driver-assisted” technology that requires drivers to always be fully aware and ready to take control to the steering wheel and pedals. 

Tesla notes that it continually underscores to drivers that they need to pay attention and keep control of their car. For instance, before a driver can enable the autopilot, the driver must tell the software that he or she acknowledges rules about being prepared and engaged at all times. 

Drivers being over-reliant on autopilot is a recurring problem, though it’s relatively rare. In 2016, for instance, a Tesla driver operating in autopilot mode was killed when his Model S drove underneath a tractor-trailer. The NHTSA, however, cleared Tesla and determined the driver was at fault.

Consumer Reports has suggested that Tesla change the name for autopilot to something less misleading. Indeed, autopilot may one day fulfill the grand ambitions of its name — but this goal is still far from realized.

In 2016, Tesla CEO Elon Musk made the significant announcement that, henceforth, every Tesla would now be fitted with the hardware necessary (like cameras) to be a completely autonomous vehicle. It’s unclear when the self-driving software will catch up. 

For now, Tesla drivers should keep their hands on the wheel — for everyone’s benefit, not least the sake of fire trucks and emergency personnel on bustling U.S. freeways. 

Update: January 24, 2017 at 5:00 p.m. EST: This post has been updated to include the following collision report from the California Highway Patrol.

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