Automobile Safety Agency Expands Tesla Investigation

The federal government’s top auto safety agency is dramatically expanding an investigation into Tesla and its Autopilot driver assistanc...


The federal government’s top auto safety agency is dramatically expanding an investigation into Tesla and its Autopilot driver assistance system to determine whether the technology poses a safety risk.

The agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said Thursday it was update of its preliminary assessment from autopilot to technical analysis, a deeper level of scrutiny that is required before a recall can be ordered.

The analysis will examine whether the Autopilot fails to prevent drivers from diverting their attention from the road and engaging in other predictable and risky behaviors while using the system.

“We’ve been calling for a closer look at Autopilot for some time,” said Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, which coordinates the state’s efforts to promote safe driving.

NHTSA said it is aware of 35 crashes that occurred while the autopilot was on, including nine that resulted in the deaths of 14 people. But he said on Thursday he had not determined whether the autopilot had any faults that could cause car crashes when engaged.

The broader survey covers 830,000 vehicles sold in the United States. They include all four Tesla cars – Models S, X, 3 and Y – from model years 2014 through 2021. The agency will look at Autopilot and its various component systems that handle steering, braking and other tasks. driving, and a more advanced system that Tesla calls Full Self-Driving.

Tesla did not respond to a request for comment on the agency’s decision.

The preliminary assessment focused on 11 crashes in which Tesla cars operating under Autopilot control struck parked emergency vehicles with flashing lights. In that review, NHTSA said Thursday the agency learned of 191 crashes — not limited to those involving emergency vehicles — that warranted further investigation. They occurred while the cars were operating on autopilot, full self-driving or related features, the agency said.

According to Tesla, the Full Self-Driving software can guide a car through city streets but does not make it fully autonomous and forces drivers to stay alert. It’s also only available to a limited number of customers in what Tesla calls a “beta” or test version that isn’t fully developed.

The further investigation indicates that NHTSA is taking safety issues more seriously stemming from a lack of safeguards to prevent drivers from using Autopilot in unsafe ways.

“This isn’t your typical case of default,” said Michael Brooks, acting executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group. “They’re actively looking for a problem that can be fixed, and they’re looking at driver behavior, and the problem may not be a component of the vehicle.”

Tesla and its chief executive, Elon Musk, have been criticized for overdoing Autopilot and full self-driving in ways that suggest they are capable of piloting cars without driver intervention.

“At a minimum, they should be renamed,” said Mr. Adkins of the Governors Highway Safety Association. “These names confuse people into thinking they can do more than they are actually capable of.”

Competing systems developed by General Motors and Ford Motor use infrared cameras that closely track the driver’s eyes and audible warning chimes if a driver looks away from the road for more than two or three seconds. Tesla did not initially include such a driver monitoring system in its cars, and later only added a standard camera much less accurate than infrared cameras for eye tracking.

Tesla tells drivers to use Autopilot only on divided highways, but the system can be activated on any streets that have lines down the middle. The GM and Ford systems – known as Super Cruise and BlueCruise – can only be activated on highways.

Autopilot was first offered in Tesla models in late 2015. It uses cameras and other sensors to steer, accelerate and brake with little input from drivers. Owner’s manuals tell drivers to keep their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road, but early versions of the system allowed drivers to keep their hands on the wheel for five minutes or more under certain conditions.

Unlike technologists at nearly every other company working on autonomous vehicles, Musk insisted that autonomy could only be achieved with cameras tracking their surroundings. But many Tesla engineers interviewed whether relying on cameras without other detection devices was safe enough.

Mr Musk has regularly promoted Autopilot’s capabilities, saying autonomous driving is “problem solved” and predicting that drivers will soon be able to sleep while their cars take them to work.

Questions about the system arose in 2016 when an Ohio man was killed when his Model S crashed into a tractor-trailer on a Florida highway while the autopilot was on. NHTSA investigated the crash and said in 2017 that it found no safety flaws in the autopilot.

But the agency published a newsletter in 2016, saying that driver assistance systems that fail to keep drivers engaged “may also pose an unreasonable risk to safety”. And in a separate investigation, the The National Transportation Safety Board has concluded that the autopilot system had “played a major role” in the Florida accident because, although it worked as intended, it lacked safeguards to prevent abuse.

Tesla faces lawsuits from families of victims of fatal accidentsand some customers have sued the company on its claims for autopilot and full autonomous driving.

Last year, Mr. Musk acknowledged that developing autonomous vehicles was harder than he thought.

NHTSA opened its preliminary assessment of Autopilot in August and initially focused on 11 crashes in which Teslas operating with Autopilot engaged collided with police cars, fire trucks and other emergency vehicles that stopped and flashed their lights. These accidents resulted in one death and 17 injuries.

While reviewing these crashes, he discovered six more involving emergency vehicles and eliminated one of the original 11 from further study.

At the same time, the agency learned of dozens of other crashes that occurred while Autopilot was active that did not involve emergency vehicles. Of these, the agency initially focused on 191 and eliminated 85 from further review because it could not obtain enough information to get a clear picture if the autopilot was a major cause.

In about half of the other 106, NHTSA found evidence to suggest drivers weren’t having their full attention on the road. About a quarter of the 106 cases occurred on roads where autopilot is not supposed to be used.

In a technical analysis, NHTSA’s Bureau of Defect Investigation sometimes acquires vehicles that it examines and arranges for testing to try to identify defects and reproduce any problems they may cause. In the past, he’s taken components apart to find faults and asked manufacturers for detailed data on component operation, often including proprietary information.

The process can take months, even a year or more. NHTSA aims to complete the analysis within a year. If he concludes that there is a safety defect, he can urge a manufacturer to initiate a recall and correct the problem.

On rare occasions, automakers have challenged the agency’s findings in court and prevailed by stopping the recalls.

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