WASHINGTON -- Tesla Inc.'s ardent defense of its Autopilot system is getting heat from safety advocates who question a key data point the company has been citing to plead its case.
Several times since an Autopilot-linked fatality last month, the electric-car maker has claimed the U.S. government found that an early version of Autopilot reduced crash rates by 40 percent. Several safety experts say Tesla is misstating a conclusion reached by its regulator. Others are calling on Tesla and NHTSA to release the underlying data as automated-driving technology comes under greater scrutiny following some high-profile deaths.
Both the company and NHTSA -- the publisher of the report Tesla has invoked -- have resisted releasing the data, which is the subject of an ongoing public-records lawsuit. Tesla, which can constantly collect information on the acceleration, braking and speed of its customers' vehicles, is standing by its statements.
"If Tesla's going to keep asserting that, and particularly if they're going to keep crediting NHTSA for it, then I think they need to provide the necessary analysis, caveats and qualifications behind that number," said Bryant Walker Smith, a professor at the University of South Carolina's School of Law, who studies driverless-car regulations. "If that is even close to being true, then that is one of the biggest safety advances since the seat belt."