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NHTSA launches Tesla Autopilot investigation over crashes with emergency vehicles

A Tesla Model 3 utilizing its Navigate on Autopilot feature. (Credit: Tesla)

The United States government has announced that it is formally opening an investigation into Tesla Autopilot, stating that the driver-assist system has issues spotting parked emergency vehicles. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) posted the probe’s announcement on Monday. 

The investigation would be covering 765,000 vehicles from the start of the 2014 to the 2021 model year that were sold in the United States. It would also cover vehicles from Tesla’s entire lineup today: the Model S, Model X, Model 3, and Model Y. The NHTSA has identified 11 collisions since 2018 involving Teslas on either Autopilot or Traffic-Aware Cruise Control which ended up hitting parked emergency vehicles.

The NHTSA’s The Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) resume notes the following. 

“ODI has opened a Preliminary Evaluation of the SAE Level 2 ADAS system (Autopilot) in the Model Year 2014-2021 Models Y, X, S,and 3. The investigation will assess the technologies and methods used to monitor, assist, and enforce the driver’s engagement with the dynamic driving task during Autopilot operation. The investigation will additionally assess the OEDR by vehicles when engaged in Autopilot mode, and ODD in which the Autopilot mode is functional. The investigation will also include examination of the contributing circumstances for the confirmed crashes listed below and other similar crashes.”

The NHTSA cited crashes in Culver City and Laguna Beach, California; Norwalk, Connecticut; Cloverdale, Indiana; West Bridgewater, Massachusetts; Cochise County, Arizona; Charlotte, North Carolina, Montgomery County, Texas; Lansing, Michigan; and Miami, Florida.

An NHTSA spokesperson has issued the following comment about the investigation: 

“The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is committed to ensuring the highest standards of safety on the nation’s roadways. In keeping with the agency’s core safety mission and to better understand the causes of certain Tesla crashes, NHTSA is opening a preliminary evaluation into Tesla Autopilot systems and the technologies and methods used to monitor, assist, and enforce the driver’s engagement with driving while Autopilot is in use.  

“NHTSA reminds the public that no commercially available motor vehicles today are capable of driving themselves. Every available vehicle requires a human driver to be in control at all times, and all State laws hold human drivers responsible for operation of their vehicles. Certain advanced driving assistance features can promote safety by helping drivers avoid crashes and mitigate the severity of crashes that occur, but as with all technologies and equipment on motor vehicles, drivers must use them correctly and responsibly.”  

Tesla’s Autopilot is a hands-on system, and the company makes it a point to remind drivers to pay close attention to the road whenever they engage the feature. Tesla also detects pressure on the steering wheel, and lately, video camera feeds, to determine if drivers are operating Autopilot properly. 

But despite this, the robust capabilities of the system have resulted in Autopilot abuse among careless drivers, many of whom are all too willing to operate the driver-assist suite as a hands-free system. One of these, a Model 3 owner, actually got arrested after he insisted on operating his Tesla from the backseat of his car.

While Autopilot tends to attract a lot of attention and controversy, the advanced driver-assist system’s safety statistics are quite notable. As per the company’s accident data as of Q1 2021, Tesla only registered one accident for every 4.19 million miles driven in which drivers had Autopilot engaged. By comparison, the NHTSA’s most recent data shows that in the United States there is an automobile crash every 484,000 miles. 

The NHTSA’s document on its Tesla Autopilot investigation could be viewed below.

INOA-PE21020-1893 by Simon Alvarez on Scribd

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NHTSA launches Tesla Autopilot investigation over crashes with emergency vehicles
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