NHTSA Finally Turns Heat Up on Tesla Autopilot

US regulators have finally launched an official investigation into Tesla’s adaptive cruise control system following a catalogue of accidents and complaints.

BBC News reports that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said it was acting following 11 Tesla crashes since 2018 involving emergency vehicles. It stated that, in some cases, the vehicles even “crashed directly into the vehicles of first responders”.

Its investigation will cover about 765,000 Tesla cars made since 2014. These include the automaker’s entire current range being Model Y, Model X, Model S and Model 3.

The agency said its main focus will be on an apparent inability of Tesla vehicles to simply recognize when a vehicle is stopped in the road – specifically emergency vehicles attending an incident.

It highlighted two cases where a Tesla “ploughed into the rear” of a parked fire truck attending an accident and another which saw a Tesla strike a parked police car. The NHTSA said it was opening its preliminary investigation into “the technologies and methods used to monitor, assist, and enforce the driver’s engagement”, while using Autopilot.

Autopilot claims to allow the car to automatically steer, accelerate and brake. The agency said that, in the 11 crashes that prompted its investigation, either Autopilot or a system called Traffic Aware Cruise Control had been active “just prior” to the collisions.

Tesla has long be criticized by road safety groups and automotive experts for over-stating the Autopilot’s autonomous credentials in its marketing and then, when accidents occur, referring to the owner’s manual small print stressing that the driver must be in control at all times.

Yet, Tesla has marketed the feature as an “Autopilot” and promised “full self-driving”, which is now available to some users in a beta version. Of course, no doubt spurred by the marketing ‘spiel’, some owners have abused the system, with examples ranging from using their phones while the car drives unattended to switching car seats and leaving no driver at the wheel.

The BBC reports that in a statement, an NHTSA spokesperson said: “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.”

The investigation’s supporting documents do take into account some challenging circumstances involved in many of the collisions. It said: “Most incidents took place after dark and the crash scenes encountered included scene control measures such as first responder vehicle lights, flares, an illuminated arrow board, and road cones.”

The move comes just two days before chief executive Elon Musk will be presenting “Tesla AI Day”. He claims this would showcase the progress of the firm’s artificial intelligence systems while hoping to attract AI experts to his company. The BBC points out it could not get a comment from the automaker largely Tesla disbanded its public relations team in October 2020.

— Paul Myles is a seasoned automotive journalist based in Europe. Follow him on Twitter @Paulmyles_

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