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NHTSA to investigate Tesla Autopilot system again

Not a robot: NHTSA’s probe into Tesla’s autonomous driving technologies serves a reminder that ‘every available vehicle requires a human driver to be in control at all times’.

US safety body to probe safety of Tesla’s autonomous driving technologies

23 Aug 2021

UNITED State automotive safety regulator the National Highway Safety Traffic System Administration (NHSTA) has launched another safety probe into Tesla’s autonomous driving technologies.

The autonomous driving technology systems are used in hundreds of thousands of Tesla vehicles across the globe and have been in recorded use during 11 high profile accidents since January 2018, one fatal. It is these crashes that are at the centre of the NHTSA’s most recent investigations.

This safety probe is the latest – and broadest – opened by the NHSTA since 2016. The US safety body has more than 30 Tesla Autopilot and/or Traffic Aware Cruise Control based investigations currently underway.

Its latest investigations cover Tesla 3, S, X and Y models produced between 2014 and 2021, estimated to encompass around 765,000 vehicles. The crashes under scrutiny were all confirmed to “have been engaged in either Autopilot or Traffic Aware Cruise Control during the approach to the crashes”, NHTSA said in its report.

“Most incidents took place after dark, and the crash scenes encountered included scene control measures such as first responder vehicle lights (flashing strobes or beacons), flares, an illuminated arrow board and road cones.”

The investigation is the broadest look yet at Tesla’s autonomous driving technologies. NHTSA will assess the technologies and the methods used to monitor, assist, and enforce the driver’s engagement with the vehicle while in use.

Tesla’s own operations manual states that the driver “must keep their hands on the wheel at all times while driving”, even when Autopilot or Traffic Aware Cruise Control is in use.

However, the system is known to continue operating even when drivers only occasionally tap or bump the steering wheel, as demonstrated in countless YouTube videos.

The investigation will also assess how the technologies identify and respond to obstacles and emergency scene control measures, as well as the operational design of the system and its software.

In addition, the safety probe will examine contributing circumstances for the 11 crashes that have occurred since January 2018, and “other similar crashes”, said NHTSA.

In June this year (2021), the NHTSA issued an order requiring manufacturers and other operators of vehicles equipped with autonomous driving technologies to report crashes where the system was in use during or immediately before a crash.

The findings of the investigation may result in Tesla being forced to recall affected models and overhaul its technologies in a similar manner to the Takata airbag recall.

Tesla has not yet responded publicly to requests for comment surrounding the NHTSA safety probe.

However, Tesla CEO Elon Musk has previously stated that vehicles equipped with his company’s autonomous driving technologies are “much safer than others on the road” and has dismissed warnings from safety experts and NHTSA that have been critical of Autopilot’s design.

“The NHTSA reminds the public that no commercially available motor vehicles today are capable of driving themselves,” said a NHTSA spokesperson.

“Every available vehicle requires a human driver to be in control at all times, and all state laws hold human drivers responsible for the responsible operation of their vehicles.

“Certain advanced driving assistance features can promote safety by helping drivers avoid crashes and mitigate the severity of crashes that occurs, but as with all technologies and equipment on motor vehicles, drivers must use them correctly and responsibly.”

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