NHTSA launches investigation into Tesla Autopilot

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Transport safety body begins probe after identifying 11 crashes involving Teslas close to emergency incidents.

The US government has launched a formal investigation into Tesla’s Autopilot advanced driver assistance system, after a series of crashes involving vehicles with the system and parked emergency vehicles.

The investigation by the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) follows 11 crashes, in which a total of 17 people were injured and one killed, and potentially affects 765,000 cars. The noticed issued by the NHTSA covers virtually every Tesla sold in the US from 2014 onwards. The Model Y, Model X, Model S and Model 3 are all included.

The NHTSA says that its Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) has identified 11 crashes involving Tesla cars that occurred when they encountered ‘first responder scenes’, being attended to by emergency services vehicles. The body says that most of the incidents took place after dark, and the crash scenes included control measures such as emergency vehicle lights, illuminated road signage boards and traffic cones.

According to the NHTSA, every Tesla involved in the crash had either its Autopilot or Traffic Aware Cruise Control advanced driver assistance system (ADAS) enabled on the approach to the accident scene. The Tesla cars involved subsequently struck one or more vehicles involved in the first responder scenes.

Tesla’s Autopilot is a Level Two ADAS system, and can control both the vehicle’s steering and speed, although in its statement the NHTSA notes that when used the driver retains “primary responsibility for Object and Event Detection and Response (OEDR)”.

The NHTSA said that 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 mode”. It will also look into any contributing circumstances for the crashes.

Tesla’s Autopilot system has previously been investigated by US National Transport Safety Board (NTSB), which has recommended that the NHTSA require Tesla to introduce a better system to ensure drivers are paying attention when Autopilot mode is engaged. In a report into a 2018 crash that was published last year, the NTSB determined that Tesla hadn’t done enough to prevent misuse of the Autopilot system, but also said that the NHTSA’s hands-off approach to regulating ADAS systems and related technology overlooked the risks of such systems.

James Attwood

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