should we be afraid of phantom braking?

If you’ve been following the automotive news closely, you’ve probably heard of “ghost braking”. What is this phenomenon, and is it, as is often claimed, unique to Tesla? Answer in our article.

Tesla Model 3 on Autopilot Navigation // Source: Bob Jouy for Frandroid

Tesla is regularly in the automotive news, often for the right reasons, but not always. Imagine: you are on the road and your car suddenly brakes, without warning. This subject, known as “phantom braking”is the obsession of Tesla owners and there are many videos on the Internet about this problem.

Let’s specify from the start: Phantom braking can occur with any car, whether electric or thermal. But this is more the case with electric models as they are often new and therefore covered with steering aids which are the culprits of history.

NHTSA (National Road Traffic Safety Administration), the US Federal Highway Safety Agency, has received enough complaints about this phenomenon to launch a formal investigation in 2022. Add to that the filing of a class action suit, It seems that this concern will increase even more in the coming months.

What is Phantom Braking?

This is an issue that is solely the responsibility of Tesla, but in reality it concerns other manufacturers as well, including Honda on some models in the United States and specifically 2018 and 2019 CR-Vs and Agreements that may crash for no reason. The Mercedes E-Class is also featured, as are the Volvo S60 and Nissan Rogue. In the latter case, 750 complaints were filed with the NHTSA, including 12 with collision caused by emergency braking.

If this issue is primarily Tesla related, it is also because the community around the brand is very active on the Internet. This issue has been discussed for a long time, but Tesla CEO Elon Musk also turned a deaf ear for a long time, before declaring that would be resolved in an update. Unfortunately, according to Tesla Owners Forums, this problem persists. Some owners are even suspicious of Autopilot after some bad experiences.

Phantom braking is linked to an issue with the Autopilot system, a globally developed system that allows the vehicle, through blind spot monitoring, lane keeping, adaptive cruise control and emergency braking. evolve almost independently in traffic.

There are several levels of autopilot. The car is equipped with it as standard, but customers can also opt for the improved Autopilot (optional for €3,900 in France) which adds Autopilot navigation, automatic lane change or even parking, and the ability to drive fully autonomously (€7,500) which includes all the functionality of the basic autopilot and the enhanced autopilot with, in addition, recognition and reaction to traffic lights and stop signs.

An emergency brake malfunction is the cause of phantom braking – an unexpected rapid deceleration caused by the autopilot activating the brakes for no apparent reason. Depending on the braking force, this can cause a lot of discomfort to passengers and, even if such a case has not yet been verified, getting into an accident if the vehicle behind you is surprised and does not brake hard enough.

As a reminder, the purpose of automatic emergency braking is to slow down or stop the vehicle in the event of an imminent collision, and this safety function usually warns the driver first and, in the absence of reaction, activates the brakes. The problem is that some (but not only) Teslas brake, sometimes at high speeds, seemingly randomly, as if something had been detected on the road.

One of the sensors appears to identify a potential hazard and, for safety, engages the brakes so as not to reach that hazard. In reality, sometimes it is simply a shadow or a reflection on the road.

Which cars are affected by phantom braking?

In a letter addressed to Tesla on May 4, 2022, the NHTSA specifies: “The office received 758 reports of unexpected brake activation of certain Model 3 and Y vehicles (model year 2021 and 2022). A copy of each of these reports is attached for your information.. The letter can be accessed at this link.

Numbers that may seem high, but in fact should be even higher, as not all customers who may have encountered this issue necessarily filed a complaint with the NHSTA. The organization estimates that the number of affected Teslas could be around 416,000, mainly by correlating the number of affected Teslas in circulation and the number of reports received.

The current investigation therefore mainly concerns the Tesla Model 3 and Model Y model year 2021 and 2022. Obviously, there is no distinction between Propulsion, Long Range or Performance versions.. In the United States, some Tesla owners who have experienced this issue are asking other owners to report the phantom braking issue to the dealer and NHTSA to better understand the extent of the problem.

In recent months there have been more phantom brake issues. Anyway, more of them were declared. The Washington post reported earlier this year that many other owners have alerted authorities about these infamous phantom brakes since November 2021.

Tesla Vision technology completely ditches vehicle radars in favor of cameras and significant computing power

And why precisely from this date? This would be due the disappearance of speed cameras in new Teslas sold in the United States as of May 2021, a measure no doubt taken to address component shortages, but hidden behind a technological advancement called “Tesla Vision”.

In Europe, radars also disappeared from new Teslas as of April 2022. For Teslas already in circulation on this date, radars will gradually be phased out, to be based only on cameras, and the Tesla Vision system. More recently, Tesla made the decision to completely remove ultrasonic sensors for low-speed maneuvers, to focus solely on the Tesla Vision.

But anyway, phantom braking was already taking place even without the Tesla Vision, when Autopilot was also based on speed cameras. So it’s hard to say whether the switch to the Tesla Vision system has improved the situation or not.

And as we saw above, other manufacturers also face the problem of phantom braking. Virtually all newer cars with overly sensitive emergency braking can experience this problem.

What are the solutions?

The first would obviously be that Tesla, but also all other manufacturers, fix the problem. Tesla doesn’t really communicate on the matter and logically some owners go ahead and sue the American company.

The problem is that it seems that no magic solution is available. In fact, by modifying the obstacle detection algorithm and therefore the emergency braking system, it means that it is not activated when needed. Finally, what’s more dangerous: emergency braking for nothing or no emergency braking when needed?

Tesla fully autonomous beta
Tesla Full Self Driving Beta // Source: Electrek

As Adriano Palao, head of driving aids for the European organization EuroNCAP, points out to the media automotive newsremoving phantom braking in Europe will be very difficult,” due to the variety of infrastructures between countries“. Before adding that one of the solutions is to use a lot of sensors, like radars, in addition to LiDAR, cameras and machine learning trained to react to these situations.”

If Tesla uses machine learning well to improve its driving aids, that’s not the case for most other manufacturers. Elon Musk’s company has a long-standing lead in this area. But when it comes to sensors, it’s just the opposite. The American billionaire doesn’t care about LiDAR and proves it with the removal of radars and ultrasonic sensors. What makes it even harder to troubleshoot ghost braking?

Only time will tell, as Tesla remains convinced that the Tesla Vision system is more efficient than driving aids based on radar-assisted cameras. A path not taken by other manufacturers, such as the Mercedes with the EQS’ LiDAR, or the Nio and its ET7 equipped with a LiDAR but autonomous driving… rather hesitantly as we saw in our test.

EuroNCAP to the rescue?

In an attempt to reduce the occurrence of ghost braking, EuroNCAP intends to better verify the behavior of driving aids during crash tests. Which leads manufacturers to put the package in this part to make sure they get the five stars, a sign of a car’s safety.

Otherwise, drivers run the risk of disabling steering aids, due to a loss of confidence in these systems. The consequences can be disastrous, with an increased risk of an accident due to the deactivation of this artificial intelligence, which, however, is effective, as shown by Tesla’s numbers.

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