Tesla Autopilot defect probe spirals as US reviews 191 crashes

The remains of a Tesla vehicle are seen after it crashed in The Woodlands, Texas, April 17, 2021, in this still image from video obtained via social media. The US NHTSA announced on June 9 its preliminary evaluation of how Tesla Autopilot handles crash scenes with first-responder vehicles warrants further review and upgraded the probe. — SCOTT J. ENGLE via Reuters

US authorities escalated an investigation into whether Tesla Inc’s Autopilot is defective and revealed they’ve reviewed almost 200 crashes involving vehicles using the driver-assistance technology.

The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced on June 9 its preliminary evaluation of how Tesla Autopilot handles crash scenes with first-responder vehicles warrants further review and upgraded the probe. Since opening the inquiry almost 10 months ago, NHTSA has reviewed a much broader set of collisions beyond Teslas running into fire trucks and police cars.

The agency has sifted through the circumstances of 191 crashes involving Tesla vehicles operating some version of Autopilot. In roughly 50 cases, NHTSA found drivers were insufficiently responsive to the driving task. In approximately two-dozen other incidents, the agency said the primary factor appears to be drivers using the system in environments and conditions where the technology runs up against limitations, such as off highways or in inclement weather.

The risk for Tesla extends beyond the potential for NHTSA to ultimately conclude a defect does exist. The regulator has the power to order recalls, and its investigation could lead chief executive officer Elon Musk to come up with better safeguards against driver inattentiveness or ways to restrict Autopilot from being used in situations it can’t handle safely.

“NHTSA appears to be increasingly closer to taking firm action against Tesla, which will hopefully be strong enough to permanently dissuade the company from continuing to mislead the public about the capabilities of its vehicles,” Michael Brooks, acting executive director and chief counsel of the Center for Auto Safety, said in an email.

ALSO READ: Tesla Autopilot stirs US alarm as ‘disaster waiting to happen’

Tesla didn’t respond to a request for comment on NHTSA upgrading its investigation. The company’s shares closed down 0.9%, erasing earlier gains. The stock has fallen 32% this year.

In a document posted to its website, NHTSA said its probe now applies to an estimated 830,000 vehicles, roughly 65,000 more than when it started evaluating the potential defect in August. Three more crashes involving Teslas hitting first responder vehicles have occurred since the investigation started, the latest occurring in January.

NHTSA said in the document that it will “explore the degree to which Autopilot and associated Tesla systems may exacerbate human factors or behavioral safety risks by undermining the effectiveness of the driver’s supervision”.

The agency also dispelled the notion that driver misuse of Autopilot may preclude it from making a defect determination.

“This is particularly the case if the driver behaviour in question is foreseeable in light of the system’s design or operation,” NHTSA said.

Tesla has for years marketed certain assistance features as Full Self-Driving and charged customers thousands of dollars to beta-test the technology. In a statement Thursday, NHTSA reiterated that “no commercially available motor vehicles today are capable of driving themselves”.

Autopilot is facing increased scrutiny from NHTSA on another front. Last week, the agency disclosed the number of complaints it’s received about Teslas suddenly braking at high speeds had more than doubled since it opened a defect investigation into that issue in February.

NHTSA has given Tesla until June 20 to respond to pages of questions and information requests related to that probe. The agency is also planning to release data in the coming weeks about crashes involving automated-driving features roughly a year after it issued a standing general order for automakers to begin sharing information. – Bloomberg

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