Tesla has incorporated its driver assist technology, Autopilot, in all of its vehicles, but with this new technology has come some problems. Although Tesla drivers now have everything from lane assistance, front and side monitoring, and adaptive cruise control, its automatic emergency braking has been in the news for “phantom braking.”
The automatic braking system has come under attack due to braking on its own at inappropriate times. This “phantom braking” occurs when a vehicle drastically slows down when there is no risk of a collision. This has angered drivers and puts their safety at risk.
Driver’s assistance technology helps drivers avoid accidents, relieve stress, and even help with monitor fatigue. This does not mean the car is self-driving; instead, the technology monitors the vehicle’s surroundings and responds accordingly. However, automatic emergency braking and phantom braking have become a common complaint.
Is Your Tesla Autopilot Phantom Breaking?
As noted with the two incidents above, the Tesla vehicles did not detect the tractor trailer in time to stop the fatal collisions. However, this is not the only issue Tesla drivers have had with their Tesla braking systems. Tesla drivers have also voiced their complaints about their vehicles “phantom braking,” which can also be dangerous.
Phantom braking is when the Tesla vehicle’s cameras perceive an obstacle and then either slow down or abruptly stop the vehicle. It is said to be “phantom” because many times there is nothing in the way of the car. This can be dangerous because it has occurred in hazardous places like on a major highway, a bridge, or under an overpass.
Phantom braking has been said to occur when the vehicle is in autosteer or in cruise control modes. Drivers have been told to capture the phantom braking incident on video to show the dashboard and the front of the vehicle for proof of the incidents. Some complaints about phantom braking from Tesla vehicle owners include:
- On snowy or icy roads it can put the car out of control
- A large sign on a four-lane road flashing “traffic signal ahead” triggers the braking
- Phantom braking occurring while the car is in “speed limit” or “current speed” mode
- The vehicle superimposes a lower maximum speed that the one set on the vehicle
- Occurring because of perceived oncoming traffic that is not there
- Just does the phantom braking on the highway for no apparent reason
The main way Tesla drivers have found to stop this dangerous phantom braking is to turn off the autopilot, automatic emergency braking, and cruise control so that the human is driving the car, not the computer. This defeats the purpose of having the benefits of Autopilot if it needs to be turned off to avoid the dangers of phantom braking.
Phantom Braking Versus Automatic Emergency Braking
One of the main points of confusion with the phantom braking issue is that Tesla owners are confusing it with issues with the vehicles’ automatic emergency braking (AEB). Norway resident, Tesla advocate, and a man who has driven more than 500,000 kilometers in various Tesla vehicles, Bjorn Nyland, explained the difference clearly:
- Phantom breaking—usually occurs when the computer system is triggered by a larger vehicle coming in the opposite direction, may be too close or slip over the centerline, and cause the Tesla vehicle to slow down 10-20 miles per kilometer.
- Automatic emergency braking (AEB)—Calculates the probability of a crash occurring and greatly reduces the speed or even abruptly brakes the vehicle to reduce the potential damage of a collision or crash with an obstacle (other vehicle, pedestrian, inanimate object, etc.).
Nyland has experienced phantom braking while driving on highways in his Tesla and AEB during more dangerous situations. For example, he has stated that his Model 3 Tesla reacted to pedestrians ignoring his vehicle and jaywalking through a green light by braking very hard. He said this hard braking is a result of AEB, not phantom braking.
Nyland explained that his Tesla Model 3’s AEB kicked in after he had already slowed down coming up to the green light and saw the pedestrians walking across the street. However, the AEB was a very hard braking reaction that did startle him after the vehicle detected physical objects and the AEB reacted. He claims phantom braking is different.
Since Nyland is from Norway, he used his analysis of phantom braking versus AEB to examine a three-car collision that occurred after a Tesla vehicle allegedly experienced phantom braking. Nyland asserts that the Tesla’s braking system was not the main cause of the accident, as claimed in the Norway media, but also a result of human error.
Was Phantom Braking the Cause of a Norway Crash?
Why do vehicles even have these automatic braking systems if they cause unforeseen issues? They are meant to reduce the amount of damage to the driver and the vehicle during a collision. If a vehicle hits something at a lower speed, the damage should be less because the impact will be severely less when there is less kinetic energy.
That being said, phantom braking is a common issue and an annoyance in vehicles with automatic emergency braking and cruise control. It has happened in vehicles all over the world and has given consumers a negative impression of these driving assistance systems and caused negative media coverage for manufacturers like Tesla.
A recent three-car collision in Norway that was blamed in the media on a Tesla’s phantom braking may be more complicated. It was claimed the Tesla car went haywire because the speed limit went down, but Nyland debunked that theory stating the Tesla’s change in speed is comfortable and gentle. The causes were more complicated:
● Oncoming traffic may have triggered phantom braking
● The Tesla may have been driving too slow for impatient drivers behind him
● The van behind the Tesla was driving too close
● A truck behind that van was also driving too close
● The journalist was wrong in blaming the chain collision simply on phantom braking
Drivers can overcome the automatic emergency braking issue by taking the accelerator and brake, but this should not have to occur with systems that are meant to make things less stressful for the driver. Experts and Tesla drivers agree that it is very annoying that it slows down the vehicle and Tesla should find a fix for phantom braking.
Three-Car Collision Brings Negative Press to Tesla
Phantom braking can definitely be an annoyance when you are simply driving down the highway, but it can also be dangerous. More recently, a chain collision occurred in Norway after a Tesla Model 3 was said to have automatically braked and came to a full stop while the Autopilot perceived there was an obstacle in front of it.
The adaptive cruise control was first blamed for the incident after the Tesla was driving in a northbound lane, a van was driving behind it, a truck was behind the van, and a truck was driving in the southbound lane. The Tesla allegedly registered an obstacle in the road and applied a full brake, which caused the Tesla to be hit from behind.
Bjorn Nyland has rebutted the fact that the Model 3 Tesla came to a full braking stop and caused the chain collision with the van and truck. Nyland has tested all the Tesla models, including the X, S, and the Model 3, and has accrued hundreds of thousands of kilometers on his Tesla journeys and has tested phantom braking and the AEB system.
Nyland asserted that phantom braking occurs when Tesla’s Autopilot system sees a large oncoming vehicle, like a truck, and triggers the vehicle’s automatic emergency braking system. He said this may reduce a Tesla’s speed down to as slow as 6 to 12 miles per hour, but in his experience has not made the car come to a complete stop.
Why Phantom Braking May Be an Annoyance, But Not Deadly
Nyland’s theory about the accident in Norway was that there were multiple causes of the chain collision. The phantom braking that has been blamed in Norway usually occurs when both the autosteer and automatic cruise control are being used and a large vehicle is coming towards the Tesla in the opposite direction and triggers the AI code.
This trigger in the computer’s code is probably the cause of the phantom braking. However, Nyland asserted that phantom braking would not cause the car to brake at a complete stop but slow the vehicle down. This could be a problem in wintery weather, but that was not the cause in Norway. He stated multiple reasons for the crash:
● The Tesla was not driving fast and could have caused the cars behind to be impatient
● The van behind the Tesla was not driving at a three-second safe distance
● The truck driver behind the van was driving too close to the van and not maintaining a three-second safe distance
● A truck coming in the southbound lane may have triggered the Tesla to slow down, but not come to a full stop as reported in the Norway media
● The crash was not only the blame of the Tesla driver or the automatic braking system, but also the other drivers involved
Nyland is blaming human error, particularly the van and truck driving too close to the Tesla and being impatient at the Tesla’s slow speed, for the ultimate chain collision. If the van and truck were maintaining a three-second speed distance between the cars, they would have had time to react to the Tesla’s abrupt slow down from the other truck.
Nyland has seen phantom braking in Tesla vehicles as a problem, but has also upheld that if drivers maintain a safe distance behind vehicles, chain collisions like the one that occurred in Norway probably would not occur. He has also said older vehicles with the Autopilot 1 do not have this issue, but what does this mean for later Autopilot versions?
Autopilot is Not Self-Driving
Tesla’s Autopilot technology combines adaptive cruise control, automated steering, and other features (for an additional $10,000 cost) that help drivers avoid car accidents. The hardware system consists of eight cameras, a radar system, twelve sensors, and an impressively upgraded computer system to collect the data from the other features.
The Autopilot software uses the radar components for traffic aware cruise control to have the vehicle match the speed of the cars in front of it and can allow the Tesla to stop and speed up again all on its own. Depending on the software package in the vehicle, it could also track lane lines, autosteer, make lane changes, and autopark.
● Eight surrounding cameras for 360 degrees visibility and 250 meter range
● Twelve ultrasonic sensors to detect objects
● Computer processing that runs the company’s neural net
● Automatic steering, accelerating, and braking within the lane
Autopilot also has stop sign control and traffic light control, which means it will help the driver see and respond to stop signs and slow down at traffic lights. Tesla owners can even upgrade their Autopilot to include Summon, which allows the vehicle to drive without you being in the car. This means in a parking lot your car comes right to you.
However, Autopilot is not a self-driving function and does need the driver to be aware of what is going on around him or her. This caused a problem early on with the Tesla braking system when two drivers, nearly three years apart, both were killed in collisions with tractor trailers. These crashes even caused Tesla to meet with politicians.
Tesla Defends Autopilot and Blames Automatic Braking System
On May 7, 2016, a 40-year-old Ohio man named Joshua Brown was killed when his Tesla Model S sedan and a tractor trailer crashed on a Florida highway. The tractor trailer had made a left turn and then crossed Brown’s path. The Tesla did not brake and crashed into the trailer while using the Tesla Autopilot technology to control the vehicle.
Brown seemed to be relying on the Autopilot system to automatically brake, but this part of the system had failed to stop the vehicle. Almost three years later, a 50-year-old man named Jeremy Beren was also killed in Florida when his Model 3 Tesla crashed into a tractor trailer that had crossed his path and sheared off the roof of his car.
After Mr. Brown’s fatal accident, Tesla Motors representatives told Senate investigators that it was not the Autopilot technology that was responsible for the crash, but the automatic braking system. This means Tesla deemed the automatic braking system as a separate and distinct feature from Autopilot instead of the features working together.
The Tesla vehicles did not seem to know they were supposed to brake or were not able to brake, instead crashing into the tractor trailers. This led to critics to call for Tesla to permanently disable Autopilot. Elon Musk, Tesla’s chief executive, and other Tesla officials defended their Autopilot technology, and the company continued to improve it.
Autopilot Still on the Market Today
Recently, Tesla’s Autopilot was rated a nine out of 10 from Consumer Reports for capabilities and performance. Not only was it the only manufacturer to receive this high rating, this 9/10 placed them at number one for this category. Tesla beat out other manufacturers like Audi, Cadillac, Lincoln/Ford, BMW, and Subaru for Autopilot.
Consumer Reports specifically evaluated how all the different driver assistance technology systems kept the cars in the center of the lane, how smoothly the systems adjusted the cars’ speed behind other vehicles, how the adaptive cruise control and lane keeping assistance worked, and, yes, how steering and braking were controlled.
Tesla has been constantly working on improving its Autopilot’s hardware and software to help control their cars’ speed and steering to better support drivers on the road. This may be why their system scored the highest in capabilities and performance according to Consumer Reports. If this is the case, why is phantom braking still a problem?
Phantom braking is not a Tesla-specific issue, and has been criticized about numerous vehicles and their driver assistance technology systems. However, there may be confusion between what the term “phantom braking” actually entails versus problems with a vehicle’s automatic emergency braking system, as they are different results.
Is Autopilot’s Software Code at Fault?
The latest Autopilot software was introduced on February 27, 2019 and has impressive features, including traffic aware cruise control that match the speed of the Tesla with vehicles in front and autosteer that can make automatic lane changes. It uses the eight cameras to track the lanes and even park the car with autopark for hands-free parking.
However, sometimes this computer software system is triggered for no apparent reason, causing the car to phantom brake and possibly frustrate the driver. Tesla drivers have said they are able to stop this phantom braking by simply going into the Autopilot settings and turning off the “Automatic Emergency Braking” part of the software.
If a driver turns off this Autopilot feature, the car will warn the driver that braking will not occur, even if the cameras detect a possible collision. So, Tesla drivers need to decide whether they want to deal with the possible phantom braking or take a chance not using the automatic emergency braking feature and getting into a possibly deadly crash.
Tesla’s Autopilot software could be triggered by anything from another car coming in the opposite direction to a street sign that is too large and looks like a dangerous obstacle. If the Autopilot software is triggered and phantom braking occurs, you can pump the accelerator to stop the braking and drive the car again and still use the AEB.
Is Phantom Braking an Issue for Most Tesla Vehicles?
If Nyland is claiming that phantom braking is an issue for all Autopilot systems except Autopilot 1, it could affect nearly all Tesla vehicles. This is because the first version of Autopilot hardware is only found in vehicles built between September 2014 and October 2016 and all Model S and Model X Tesla vehicles manufactured during that time frame.
Nyland has said the issues that could have happened in Norway may occur for Autopilot 2.0 and later. These systems are different from the Autopilot 1 because they incorporate eight cameras, not just one, and vastly changed the computer system that analyzes the data from all the cameras. The following Tesla models could be affected:
- Autopilot Hardware 2.0—Tesla vehicles that were built between October 2016 and August 2017
- Autopilot Hardware 2.5—Tesla vehicles that were made by Tesla from August 2017 through March 2019
- Autopilot Hardware 3.0—Every Tesla vehicle made after March 2019
For example, a CNET Roadshow editor explained how his Tesla Model 3 was driving with Autopilot and started pumping the brakes as the vehicle advanced towards an overpass located on a New Jersey highway. He said the Autopilot may have thought the bridge was an approaching vehicle, which triggered the phantom braking to occur.
Hundreds of drivers have made similar complaints, according to CBS News, intensifying phantom braking fears in Teslas and other vehicles. However, they may be calling these issues “phantom braking” where there is a difference between what phantom braking entails and when there is a specific problem with automatic emergency braking.
Does Automatic Emergency Braking Do More Harm Than Good?
Tesla’s Autopilot system has numerous benefits, such as the automatic emergency braking when the vehicle senses it may crash into something, to lane keeping assistance and forward and side collision warnings and obstacle aware acceleration that slows down the vehicle to keep it from hitting an obstruction.
Autopilot also includes lane departure avoidance, which will help keep the Tesla in its required lane and rapidly change the vehicle’s direction if there is a risk of a collision with another vehicle or obstacle. If any of these features are annoying to you, including the automatic emergency braking, you can toggle them off or on.
Driving assistance systems like Tesla’s Autopilot do have their benefits. Humans need half a second to one second to respond to a situation, while a computer can calculate the data immediately. However, drivers who frequently use these types of driver’s assistance technology often become more distracted and not pay attention to the road.
For example, Consumer Reports had asked Tesla to disable the automatic steering function of Autopilot after the crashes in Florida so that individuals would be forced to keep their hands on the steering wheel. The convenience of Autopilot and other driver assistance technology could be making drivers complacent when behind the wheel.
Phantom Braking Problems Not Only in Tesla Vehicles
Other vehicle manufacturers that have automatic emergency braking systems have also been reported to have problems with phantom braking, such as Mercedes Benz, Audi, Fiat Chrysler, and Volkswagen. It just seems Tesla has gotten the most media coverage due to accidents in their vehicles turning deadly and becoming more high profile.
As noted before by Consumer Reports, Tesla has recently been evaluated positively for the capabilities and performance of its Autopilot driver assistance system. Before that recent evaluation, there were seven recalls in the United States of vehicles due to automatic braking problems, but there was no Tesla vehicle on the list:
- Subaru Impreza, Legacy, Outback, Crosstrek, WRX (2015-2016, vehicles with EyeSight, which is the comparable Subaru version of driver assist to Tesla’s Autopilot)–71,710
- 2015 Ford F-150–36,857
- Toyota Avalon (2013-2015) and Lexus ES350/ES 300H (2013-2015)–31,000
- Acura MDX (2014 and 2015), 2014 RLX–19,500
- 2019 Kia Optima–11,423
- Mitsubishi Outlander (2016-2018) and Eclipse (2018 and 2019)–9,200
- 2018 Land Rover and Range Rover, 2018 Range Rover Sport, 2018 Discovery–86
For example, a driver of a 2018 Nissan Rogue voiced her frustrations about how her vehicle slammed on its brakes three times for no reason at all. She said there was not any risk of her vehicle colliding with anything, illustrating those issues with phantom braking and automatic emergency braking issues span far past Tesla vehicles:
● More than 800 complaints of the false activation of the 2017 and 2018 Rogue’s automatic emergency braking system are being investigated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)
● Fourteen crashes and five injuries were reported from AEB problems with the Rogue
● More than half-million Nissan Rogues are being invested by the NHTSA
● Rogue vehicle owners have reported turning of the AEB because of annoyances and issues
Automatic emergency braking is going to be standard in most vehicles after 2022, which means the problems with phantom braking may not go away or even get worse. On one hand, this technology is predicting a slashing of rear-end vehicle crashes by half—saving 28,000 crashes and 12,000 injuries by the year 2025—if the system works.
Safety technology systems like Tesla’s Autopilot are not perfect, and Tesla is not alone with their automatic emergency braking and adaptive cruise control systems, sometimes phantom braking by mistake. Both computer systems and human drivers have been found to brake by mistake, but Tesla drivers need to be extra aware of this problem.
In the end, these safety systems are not automatic, self-driving systems, and it is the individual’s responsibility to be aware of what is around them, maintain a safe distance from other vehicles, and brake when required. The main problem may not be driver safety technology, but instead could be unaware drivers that are relying too much on the car.