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Tesla’s Autopilot System to Be Investigated by U.S. Auto Safety Regulator


On Monday, U.S. auto safety regulators opened a formal safety probe into Tesla Inc’s driver assistance system, Autopilot, after a series of crashes involving various Tesla models and emergency vehicles took place.

According to The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), there have been 11 crashes since January 2018, in which Teslas “have encountered first responder scenes and subsequently struck one or more vehicle involved with those scenes.”


The investigation will take in 765,000 U.S. vehicles with Autopilot built since 2014. After the news was released, Tesla shares closed down 4.3% on the information.

NHTSA has come under fire for failing to ensure the system’s safety that handles specific driving tasks and allows drivers to keep their hands off the wheel for extended periods. The organization closed an earlier prove into Autopilot in 2017 without taking any action.

After the current investigation, NHTSA could opt to take no action, or it could initiate and demand a recall, which might directly result in an imposing of limits on how, when, and where Autopilot operates. 

At present, Tesla has a lead on the competitive gap between their system and similar advanced driver assistance systems offered by well-known automakers. Any restrictions placed by the NHTSA threaten to narrow this window and could have lasting effects on the space Tesla currently occupies in this cutting-edge field.

CEO Elon Musk has vehemently defended Autopilot and in April tweeted that “Tesla with Autopilot engaged now approaching ten times lower chance of accident than average vehicles.”

Despite this vote of confidence from Musk, NHTSA claims to have reports of 17 injuries and one death in the 11 crashes, including the December 2019 crash of a Tesla Model 3. This crash left a passenger dead after the Tesla collided with a parked fire truck in Indiana.

Of the 11 crashes, four have happened this year, opening a preliminary evaluation of Autopilot in the 2014-2021 Tesla Models Y, X, S, and 3. The vehicles involved in the accidents “all confirmed to have been engaged in either Autopilot or Traffic-Aware Cruise Control,” the NHTSA said. 

To demand a recall, the NHTSA must first upgrade an investigation into an engineering analysis. The two-step investigative process can take up to a year or more.

Driving at Night

NHTSA said that most of the 11 crashes took place after dark, and crash scenes included measures like road cones, flares, and emergency vehicle lights.


The investigation will assess technologies “used to monitor, assist, and enforce the driver’s engagement” with driving when using Autopilot operation.

Tesla Vision

Last month, Musk tweeted that Tesla’s advanced camera-only driver assistance system, known as “Tesla Vision,” will soon “capture turn signals, hazards, ambulance/police lights and even hand gestures.”


Autopilot was involved in at least three fatal Tesla U.S. crashes since 2016, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has said. 

The NTSB remains critical of Tesla’s lack of system safeguards for Autopilot and NHTSA’s failure to ensure the safety of Autopilot. 

NTSB chair Jennifer Homendy recently praised the new investigation. She shared that the board has urged the agency to develop standards for drive monitoring systems and require automakers to “incorporate system safeguards that limit the use of automated vehicle control systems to those conditions for which they were designed.” 

In February 20202, Andrej Karpathy, Tesla’s director of autonomous driving technology, identified a challenge for its Autopilot system: how to recognize when a parked police car’s emergency flashing lights are turned on. 

“This is an example of a new task we would like to know about,” Karpathy said at the conference. 

Speaking Out

A law professor at the University of South Carolina said the parked emergency crashes “really seem to illustrate in vivid and even tragic fashion some of the key concerns with Tesla’s system.” 

NHTSA, Brian Walker-Smith says, “has been far too deferential and timid, particularly concerning Tesla.”

Democratic Senators Richard Blumenthal and Ed Markey, who have previously questioned the Autopilot system, urged a thorough and transparent probe that would lead to improvements in the safety of Tesla’s automated driving and driver assistance technology and “prevent suture crashes.”

In response to the investigation, NHTSA has sent teams to review 31 Tesla crashes involving ten deaths since 2016, where it suspected advance driver assistance systems use. It was able to rule out Autopilot in three of the crashes.

“No commercially available motor vehicles today are capable of driving themselves,” said the NHTSA. It also added that drivers must use them correctly and responsibly. 

NHTSA has been without a Senate=Confirmed administrator since January 2017. President Joe Biden has yet to nominate anyone for this post. 

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