The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) formally upgraded its probe into Tesla Autopilot on Thursday to an “Engineering Analysis,” which will assess 830,000 vehicles after several of the automaker’s cars collided with stopped emergency vehicles.
In August, the NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) unit announced it was opening a preliminary evaluation of the SAE Level 2 ADAS System, known as Autopilot, on 2014-2021 model year Tesla Model Y, X, S, and 3 vehicles.
“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 NHTSA said. “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 agency cited numerous crashes, including ones 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.
On Thursday, the NHTSA formally upgraded the preliminary evaluation to an investigation.
“The investigation opening was motivated by an accumulation of crashes in which Tesla vehicles, operating with Autopilot engaged, struck stationary in-road or roadside first responder vehicles tending to pre-existing collision scenes,” the agency stated as its reasoning for upgrading the investigation. “Upon opening the investigation, NHTSA indicated that the PE would also evaluate additional similar circumstance crashes of Tesla vehicles operating with Autopilot engaged, as well as assess the technologies and methods used to monitor, assist, and enforce the driver’s engagement with the dynamic driving task during Autopilot operation.”
The Preliminary Evaluation closely reviewed 191 crashes involving crash patterns “not limited to the first responder scenes that prompted the investigation opening.” 85 crashes were removed because of external factors. 43 of the 106 remaining crashes provided detailed car log data. 37 of the 43 crashes showed the driver’s hands were on the steering wheel in the last second before a collision, documents state.
“Of those crashes involving first responder or roadside maintenance vehicles for which car log data existed, under the driver engagement strategy alerts were presented to only two of the drivers within 5 minutes of the crash. This suggests that drivers may be compliant with the driver engagement strategy as designed.”
The formal upgrade to an Engineering Analysis will evaluate additional data sets, allow the NHTSA to perform vehicle evaluations, and explore the degree to which Autopilot or other Tesla systems “may exacerbate human factors or behavioral safety risks by undermining the effectiveness of the driver’s supervision.”
The NHTSA’s formal upgrade letter is available below.