US probe into Tesla’s Autopilot woes includes 765,000 vehicles

The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it has identified 11 crashes since 2018 in which Teslas on Autopilot have hit vehicles at scenes where emergency responders used lights and flares.

A row of Tesla Model S sedans
A United States government agency has launched an investigation to assess the technologies used to monitor, assist and enforce the driver's engagement when Teslas are using their Autopilot function [File: Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters]

The United States government opened a formal safety probe into Tesla’s partially automated driving system on Monday after a series of collisions between the firm’s electric cars and parked emergency vehicles over the past several years sparked concerns.

The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said it has identified 11 crashes since January 2018 in which Teslas using the vehicles’ Autopilot or Traffic-Aware Cruise Control systems have hit emergency vehicles at scenes where first responders were using lights, flares, an illuminated arrow board or cones as warning signals.

“The involved subject vehicles were all confirmed to have been engaged in either Autopilot or Traffic Aware Cruise Control during the approach to the crashes,” the NHTSA said in a statement. “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.”

Seventeen people were injured and one was killed in those crashes, the NHTSA said. The 11 crashes include four this year, with the latest occurring last month in San Diego, California.

The investigation covers 765,000 Tesla vehicles in the US, which is nearly all of those sold by the firm in the country since the start of the 2014 model year. Tesla Models Y, X, S and 3 from 2014 through 2021 are part of the probe.

Autopilot in Tesla vehicles handles some driving tasks and allows drivers to cruise with their hands off the wheel. The system was operating in at least three Tesla vehicles involved in fatal US crashes since 2016, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said.

NHTSA has previously sent teams to review 31 Tesla crashes involving 10 deaths since 2016 in which partially automated driver-assist systems were involved.

On Monday, the agency issued a stark warning 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,” NHTSA said.

The NTSB, which has no enforcement powers and can only make suggestions, has recommended that NHTSA and Tesla limit Autopilot’s use to areas where it can safely operate and that Tesla implement a better system to ensure drivers are paying attention.

Autopilot has frequently been misused by Tesla drivers. Drivers have been caught driving drunk or even riding in the back seat while a Tesla cruised down a California highway.

Tesla and other manufacturers warn that drivers using the systems must be ready to intervene at all times.

An NHTSA investigation could lead to a recall or other enforcement action.

Tesla Inc shares slid in Monday morning trading on Wall Street.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies