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U.S. Regulators Formally Open Safety Probe of Tesla's Autopilot After Accidents Involving Emergency Vehicles

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【Summary】Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk is a fierce defender of the automaker’s semi-autonomous driving feature “Autopilot”, saying that the technology saves lives. However, after a series of high profile crashes involving emergency vehicles where drivers were suspected of using Autopilot, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has formally opened a safety probe of Tesla vehicles in the U.S.

Eric Walz    Aug 16, 2021 8:30 AM PT
U.S. Regulators Formally Open Safety Probe of Tesla's Autopilot After Accidents Involving Emergency Vehicles

Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk is a fierce defender of the automaker's semi-autonomous driving feature "Autopilot", saying that the technology saves lives. However, after a series of high profile crashes involving emergency vehicles where drivers were suspected of using Autopilot, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has formally opened a safety probe of Tesla vehicles in the U.S., Reuters reports. 

Since Jan 2018, the NHTSA said it identified 11 crashes where Tesla vehicles collided with emergency vehicles which were on scene responding to other incidents. The NHTSA said it had reports of 17 injuries and one death in those crashes.

As a result, the NHTSA said it opened a preliminary evaluation of Autopilot in 2014-2021 Tesla vehicles. In total, the probe covers around 765,000 Tesla vehicles in the U.S., the NHTSA said.

"The involved subject vehicles were all confirmed to have been engaged in either Autopilot or Traffic Aware Cruise Control (TACC) during the approach to the crashes," the NHTSA said in a document opening the investigation.

The NHTSA has in recent years sent numerous special crash investigation teams to review a series of Tesla crashes, the most recent occured in California last month.

In July, a Tesla Model 3 collided with a California Highway Patrol vehicle on a stretch of freeway in San Diego that was temporarily closed as first responders were on scene actively investigating an earlier fatal crash.

The driver of that vehicle, 29-year-old Nina McCary, told officers that she switched on Autopilot and was not paying attention when the Model 3 she was driving approached the area of flashing emergency lights that was cordoned off with traffic cones and slammed into the back of the police vehicle. Officers also arrested her on suspicion of driving under the influence.

The NHTSA said most incidents like the one last month have taken place at night and the crash scenes included safety measures such as emergency vehicle lights, road flares or traffic cones.

The NHTSA said its investigation "will assess the technologies and methods used to monitor, assist, and enforce the driver's engagement with the dynamic driving task during Autopilot operation."

In June, the NHTSA said it had sent teams to review 30 Tesla crashes resulting in 10 deaths since 2016. In all of the cases where it is suspected advanced driver assistance systems were suspected of use. In one of the cases, a driver was watching a movie on a phone when his vehicle rammed into a state police vehicle in North Carolina.

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A crash with a police vehicle allegedly involving Tesla's Autopilot on July 14, 2020 in Arizona. (Photo: Arizona Department of Public Safety)

The NHTSA has the power to demand a recall of all 765,000 Tesla vehicles, which would be a major PR nightmare and financial burden for Tesla. However, the safety agency must first decide to upgrade its preliminary investigation into an engineering analysis.

Musk has long touted the capabilities of Autopilot, which allows for mostly hands-free highway driving. However, since 2016, the system has been activated in at least three fatal crashes involving Tesla vehicles in the U.S. the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has said.

The NHTSA released a statement warning drivers to always pay attention when using Autopilot or any other semi-autonomous driving system.

In a statement, the NHTSA reminded drivers that "no commercially available motor vehicles today are capable of driving themselves ... Certain advanced driving assistance features can promote safety by helping drivers avoid crashes and mitigate the severity of crashes that occur, but as with all technologies and equipment on motor vehicles, drivers must use them correctly and responsibly."

It's not the first time that Tesla's Autopilot was the focus of a safety investigation. In January 2017, the NHTSA closed a preliminary evaluation into Tesla's Autopilot covering some 43,000 vehicles without taking any action after a nearly seven-month investigation.

The NHTSA said at the time it "did not identify any defects in the design or performance" of Autopilot "nor any incidents in which the systems did not perform as designed."

Tesla pioneered the use of autonomous driving technology in the auto industry when its Autopilot automated driving feature was introduced in Sept 2014 on the Model S. 

But Tesla has also been criticized for not using the laser-based perception technology lidar for Autopilot like other automakers are doing for their autonomous driving systems. Most developers of autonomous vehicles use a combination of cameras, radar and lidar to avoid obstacles and safely navigate.

Musk once referred to the use of lidar as a "fool's errand" despite its widespread use by automakers and dozens of autonomous driving startups. He called lidar technology "lame".

Instead of lidar, Tesla's autonomous driving system is camera-based, relying on advanced computer vision and machine learning algorithms for identifying other vehicles and road lanes for safe navigation.

In May, Tesla said it would replace a radar sensor in the Model 3 and Model Y vehicles sold in North America with a camera to better support its Autopilot feature, as well as its more advanced autonomous driving system called "Full Self-Driving" (FSD).

Although Tesla's approach helped reduce development costs for commercialization, experts have raised safety concerns. Now the NHTSA will take a closer look.

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