NHTSA wants Tesla to explain why it improved Autopilot safety without issuing a recall

A Tesla Model 3 driving at night. (Photo: Andres GE)

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has asked Tesla to explain why it rolled out a safety enhancement for its Autopilot driver-assist system without issuing a safety-related recall. The Autopilot improvement was rolled out to Tesla’s fleet of vehicles through a free over-the-air update. 

The NHTSA is currently probing Tesla’s Autopilot, as well as comparable driver-assist systems from other automakers such as BMW, Honda, Hyundai, Toyota, Ford, Nissan, Setllantis, Kia, Volkswagen, General Motors, Mercedes-Benz, and Subaru. The probe was initiated partly due to several incidents of Teslas on Autopilot crashing into an emergency vehicle parked on the side of the road. 

Tesla rolled out a software update that improved Autopilot’s capability to detect and respond to stationary emergency vehicles last month as a free over-the-air update. With the new feature enabled, Teslas like the Model 3 and Model Y gained the ability to slow down once an emergency vehicle was detected. Drivers also heard a chime and saw a reminder to keep their hands on the wheel. 

Videos of the feature in action showed that the Autopilot update worked as intended. This, however, seems to have aggravated the NHTSA to some degree. 

In a letter to Eddie Gates, Tesla’s director of field quality, an NHTSA official reminded the EV maker that automakers are required to notify the NHTSA of a recall notice within five days if a “safety defect or noncompliance” is identified on their vehicles. The NHTSA asked if Tesla is planning on filing a recall notice for Tesla’s Autopilot update, or if the company is planning on providing a “technical and/or legal basis for declining to do so.”

“As Tesla is aware, the Safety Act imposes an obligation on manufacturers of motor vehicles and motor vehicle equipment to initiate a recall by notifying NHTSA when they determine vehicles or equipment they produced contain defects related to motor vehicle safety or do not comply with an applicable motor vehicle safety standard,” the NHTSA official wrote. 

What is quite interesting to note is that the Autopilot update that Tesla rolled out was done not as a response to a “defect” but as a proactive function that makes the company’s vehicles safer on the road. Despite the NHTSA investigation, after all, Tesla’s Autopilot is only involved in a very small fraction of incidents involving stationary emergency vehicles. As per a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, about 8,000 injuries were reported involving a stationary emergency vehicle in one year. 

In comparison, Tesla only accounted for nine crash injuries with first responder vehicles in the past 12 months. Some of those incidents involved drivers who were intoxicated, while some involved drivers who were not paying attention to the road. With this in mind, it appears that the NHTSA’s reaction to a proactively rolled out over-the-air software update is almost tantamount to making mountains out of a molehill. 

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NHTSA wants Tesla to explain why it improved Autopilot safety without issuing a recall
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