The Tesla Autopilot-Related Death Doesn’t Matter As Much As You Think

Cars kill lots of people every single day, even without the help of futuristic technology.

Tesla Autopilot
Mallory Short / Bert Hardy Advertising Archive/Getty Images

A few hours after the news broke about the first-ever Tesla Autopilot-related death in a Model S, I received a hand-wringing email from Edmunds.com, wherein “Sr. Consumer Advice Editor Ron Montoya” offered up an opinion that almost amounted to an apology.

"This tragic accident is a sobering reminder that while automated vehicle technology has come a long way, it still has a long way to go,” he wrote. “It's important for car shoppers to know that no single technology on the market today can make a vehicle 100 percent safe. And no matter what car you drive, there is not a true 'Autopilot.' All drivers on the road need to maintain control of their vehicles and remain aware of their surroundings at all times, no matter how much technology is at their fingertips."

With that fatherly advice in pocket, I started wondering: Why is Edmunds, basically an industry-specificConsumer Reports, issuing such a dire warning after one fatal crash? On the one hand, they were just trying to get their brand in the news, and the Autopilot death is definitely news—dramatic, Man Crashes Into Dog news.

But it’s also news precisely because it’s an anomaly. A man was watching a Harry Potter movie instead of driving. (My first, terrible thought was: Why did he go out with a kids' film, instead of something for adults, like Inglorious Basterds or The Wolf Of Wall Street?) When a white semi-trailer burst in front of his car with a cloudless sky as a backdrop, his car’s usually reliable target-recognition technology failed. Joshua Brown tried to use a self-driving car before it was fully self-driving. The result was tragic, but it hardly warrants a declaration of emergency.

But should it be a dire warning about the future? Cars already kill 1.3 million people a year, and severely injure millions more. A hundred thousand die in India, eighty thousand or so in China, and 35,000 give or take in the United States. All of those people perish, almost all of them accidentally, at the hands of human drivers.

Old-school car tech has hurt far more people than the newfangled autobots. By comparison, let’s talk about the last month’s other high-profile auto-related death: Anton Yelchin, who was killed by his Jeep. The Star Trek actor and all-around awesome dude died on June 19 when his Grand Cherokee pinned him against a gate. Two months earlier, Jeep had recalled hundreds of thousands of Grand Cherokees because of a flaw in the gear shifter, which was designed so incompetently that customers couldn’t tell that if it was in Park.

I didn’t see an apologetic PR email from Edmunds about that story, though when the recall happened their news desk quoted grim facts from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: "These resulted in 117 alleged crashes. Twenty-eight of the crashes reportedly caused injuries, including three with a fractured pelvis and four others requiring some degree of hospitalization (a ruptured bladder, fractured kneecap, broken ribs, damage to the right leg). Other injuries include reports of a broken nose, facial lacerations requiring stitches, sprained knees, severe bruising and trauma to legs."

But that hideous, Knick-worthy abbatoir list didn’t stop Edmunds from pimping out the Jeep. From an Ad Age article, headlined “Celebrity Death Casts Shadow On Hot Jeep Brand,” here’s Jessica Caldwell, director of industry analysis for Edmunds.com: "Jeep is a teflon brand. It consistently gets bad quality scores . . . but sales continue to climb. It's one of those brands that people buy regardless of whatever is going on in the outside world.” Dangerous transmissions aside, sales must go on.

Just as a parlor game, let’s see what Edmunds has to say about the 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee. On a page that contains approximately four ads for the car, we learn that it sells starting at $34,785. It gets a B rating, which is much better than a C or D.

“If you want a midsize SUV that does a little of everything, the 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee is the way to go,” the site says, of a bladder-puncturing car under federal recall. “Its well-trimmed cabin is comfy for five, and it's one of the few remaining utility vehicles that can handle both off-road trails and daily commutes.” Under "Cons," Edmunds lists: “Typically more expensive than competitors." Also, “diesel engine is noisy when idling.” Nowhere do they say: “Oh, by the way, the gear shift might have killed Ensign Chekov.”

The 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee also gets solid and mostly uncritical reviews from Kelley Blue Book, Cars.com, US News, and many other places where people turn for reliable car information. Most, or at least some, of these sites have a news hole that reports recalls. It’s not as though they totally ignored Yelchin’s weird car death. But the newswire doesn’t really stick around. Instead, it’s the reviews, and those are business as usual.

“What’s with that wan little grill?”, The Car Connection asks under “Dislikes.” Car And Driver gives it 5 stars and says, “A tidy cabin with touchscreen infotainment and optional Wi-Fi make the Grand Cherokee a pleasant place to be whether fording rivers or running errands.” Sounds nice, but does it also tend to run you over in your driveway? Discerning car consumers want to know.

I’m just as guilty as anyone else in this grim racket. When I wrote about the 2014 Grand Cherokee forYahoo! Autos, in "Cons," I may have said something about how the steering felt a little loose. Most of the article was a snarky and irrelevant riff (my specialty) about how I’d gotten into an argument with a guy driving a Porsche down Mulholland Drive. Way to go, Stroker Ace.

The Model S Autopilot death is a terrible story. But the way it’s playing out is also a deliberate deflection from an industry that’s very anxious about inevitable changes. Fully automated cars, if and when they come to pass, present a huge risk to people whose livelihoods depend on the car business cleaving to its current status quo. The manufacturers will mostly be fine, but there’s anxiety among the middle-men, the sales layer.

Autonomy presages a world where people don’t have to own cars, where a robot fleet, probably electric-powered, will spell an end to all but the most specialized consumer-car industry. The companies whose entire business model depends on helping people make smart consumer car choices are nervous. They want people to drive safe—everyone does—but they also really want people to drive. If there are no consumers, there’s no choice.