Death by Touchscreen, Or Bad Police Reports?

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One controversial topic I’ve covered here, much to the chagrin to the Tesla faithful, is the reliance on touchscreens in automobiles.

The Touchscreen Debate

In some ways, touchscreens are super awesome. It’s like Star Trek: The Next Generation 30+ years ago, where Lt. Commander Data piloted the Enterprise D around using nothing but a glass panel, loaded with virtual buttons, and every other station was equipped with its own giant touchscreen display. Now, we’re living in that future in some ways, despite only a few decades going by instead of a few centuries!

But, at the same time, there are some drawbacks to touchscreens, and it’s one that Star Trek actually touched upon when they showed off The Riker Maneuver (no, not that Riker Maneuver) in the 1998 film Star Trek: Insurrection:

Sometimes, even in the 24th century, physical controls can be better. The tactile feedback, the ability to use gross motor movements instead of fine motor movements, and the definite nature of pulling a physical control into a defined and predictable position can give you an edge over using a dead touchscreen. Perhaps most importantly, having to look away from the road (or a space battle) instead of doing something by feel can be a real problem.

But, so far, this has all been conjecture and theory. Personally, I prefer a healthy mix of both systems, with physical controls for the most frequently-used and safety-related systems and touchscreen controls for the rest. Other people want all physical controls, and some want all touchscreens.

Death By Touchscreen?

Sadly, there might now be some evidence against the position of the all-touchscreen camp now, but it came at the cost of someone’s life. Angela Chao, a wealthy and well-connected sister-in-law of Mitch McConnell and former transportation secretary Elaine Chao, reportedly was having trouble with shifting in her Tesla Model X. After complaining about it several times to friends, she called one of them in a panic, saying that she had accidentally put the car in reverse and backed into a small body of water on her property.

Responders weren’t able to get the car out of the water in time, and Chao died at the scene.

There has been a lot of blame thrown at Tesla over this. Some think the emergency system for opening the doors is too complicated, and that’s why she wasn’t able to escape. Others say that the new touchscreen shifting system she reportedly struggled with caused her untimely demise. Others on the internet have some fairly wild conspiracy theories, blaming everyone from Elon Musk to the Chinese Communist Party for her death.

So, let’s focus on the least crazy theory: that a touchscreen caused a death. It turns out that this might be a “not so fast!” moment.

Problems With This Story

While there’s no way to conclusively disprove conspiracy theories (they are often “not even wrong,” or unfalsifiable, due to their lack of reliance on evidence), there are some important problems with the story of death by touchscreen that some are throwing around.

For one, Chao’s husband, Jim Breyer, doesn’t blame Tesla. If she had been having trouble with shifting and it caused her death, you’d think he’s the guy who would be the most aware of it. After all, most women complain to their husbands (some a LOT). In fact, the Wall Street Journal had this to say:

No one in the family blames Tesla, according to a person familiar with the situation. Breyer and his wife had three Teslas and loved them, and often spoke about how electric vehicles were good for the planet. Breyer considers himself a friend of Elon Musk’s.

That alone puts the narrative of death by touchscreen in some serious doubt. But, there’s also the issue of what model year the Model X is. The newest Xs come with the touchscreen shifter system, but some sources report that her X was a 2020, which would have been built before the system was included in Tesla vehicles. The reporting isn’t entirely clear.

So, to know whether her vehicle even had a touchscreen system, we’re going to have to wait for local officials in Texas to respond to multiple press inquiries they’ve received. If it is, in fact, a 2020, then the whole narrative completely unravels.

A Broadly Applicable Lesson We Can Learn From This: Don’t Panic!

The biggest argument I’ve personally raised against touchscreen shifting is operation under stress. Fine motor movements are easy for most people to do, but when adrenaline gets into your system, those abilities are diminished. Cops can’t even write their own names right after a shooting, for example. So, under extreme driving conditions, it may be difficult to shift a touchscreen system.

But, when not under life-threatening stress, there’s really no big problem with the touchscreen shifter. After all, there are videos floating around the internet of people working the system well, even in multi-point turns, once they’ve gotten used to using it over a traditional stalk or console shifter.

So, the real key in living with such a system is to slow down when you’re having an issue and not panic. Sadly, there are many people who panic when any little thing goes wrong in life, and the little dump of adrenaline makes them even less able to resolve the problem, which in turn leads to disaster. When the car goes the wrong way, some people stomp harder, thinking they’re on the brakes, so even simple gross motor skills can be compromised by panicky personalities.

To be absolutely clear: I don’t have any idea what Elaine Chao’s personality was, so I’m not at all saying that this caused her death. But, I’ve never seen any good come of panicking, so this is something you’d want to avoid regardless of whether this was her issue or not.

The best thing you can do if you’re prone to panic is try to cultivate an ability to stay calm. If you have a condition like PTSD, counseling and EMDR therapy are the go-to solutions. If you’re just high strung, meditation is the key to being a less panicky person. It’s also good to remember to use box breathing when you find yourself getting stressed out, as that alone can put you in a better mental state.

But, to do something like box breathing and calm down, you’ve got to learn to stop when things go wrong and there’s no emergency. Something like the car not behaving as expected should result in you either putting the brakes on or at least pulling your feet back and letting regen stop the car. 

Featured image by Tesla.


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