NHTSA Opens Two Defect Investigations Into Tesla Autopilot
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Derrick Monet and his wife, Jenna, were driving on an Indiana interstate in 2019 when their Tesla Model 3 sedan operating on Autopilot crashed into a parked fire truck. Derrick, then 25, sustained spine, neck, shoulder, rib and leg fractures. Jenna, 23, died at the hospital.
The incident was one of a dozen in the last four years in which Teslas using this driver-assistance system collided with first-responder vehicles, raising questions about the safety of technology the world’s most valuable car company considers one of its crown jewels.
Now, U.S. regulators are applying greater scrutiny to Autopilot than ever before. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which has the authority to force recalls, has opened two formal defect investigations that could ultimately lead Tesla Inc. to have to retrofit cars and restrict use of Autopilot in situations it still can’t safely handle.
We essentially have the Wild West on our roads right now. It is a disaster waiting to happen.
NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy
A clampdown on Autopilot could tarnish Tesla’s reputation with consumers and spook investors whose belief in the company’s self-driving bona fides have helped make Tesla CEO Elon Musk the world’s wealthiest person. It could damage confidence in technology other auto and software companies are spending billions on to develop in hope of reversing a troubling trend of soaring U.S. traffic fatalities.
It also could also bring long-simmering tensions between Washington and Tesla to a boil. The iconoclastic Musk has already derided NHTSA as the “fun police” and chafed at President Joe Biden’s unwillingness to lavish the pioneering company with praise. He’s not shy about lambasting lawmakers and regulators on Twitter, the social media platform he has offered to purchase for $43 billion.
Tesla, which reports earnings later this week, has lately had an aura of invincibility. As larger rivals were hobbled by the global chip shortage and other pandemic disruptions, the electric carmaker managed to substantially increase production. A modestly funded, slow-moving government agency is one of few obstacles threatening to throw it off course.
Musk and Tesla did not respond to requests for comment. “Making our vehicles safer is foundational to our company culture and how we innovate new technologies,” Rohan Patel, Tesla’s senior director of public policy and business development, wrote in a March letter to lawmakers.
A May 11, 2018, collision involving a Tesla Model S sedan with a fire department mechanic truck stopped at a red light in South Jordan, Utah. (South Jordan Police Department via AP)
A crackdown from NHTSA would follow repeated pleas from the National Transportation Safety Board, the independent accident investigation agency, to tighten oversight of automated vehicles. NTSB, which doesn’t have the power to compel carmakers to follow its recommendations, has suggested Tesla embrace automated-driving system safeguards that General Motors Co. and Ford Motor Co. have adopted for their systems. Tesla hasn’t responded to NTSB’s guidance and instead continued its riskier approach.
“We essentially have the Wild West on our roads right now,” Jennifer Homendy, the chair of the NTSB, said in an interview. She describes Tesla’s deployment of features marketed as Autopilot and Full Self-Driving as artificial-intelligence experiments using untrained operators of 5,000-pound vehicles. “It is a disaster waiting to happen.”
Musk has taken advantage of a light-touch approach in the U.S. to regulating self-driving technology. Within days of Tesla releasing a software update that enabled Autopilot in October 2015, YouTubers posted videos of themselves ignoring the company’s warnings against taking their hands off the wheel. One nearly auto-steered off the road; the other almost veered into an oncoming car.
Two months before a Tesla driver in Florida died when his Model S on Autopilot plowed into an 18-wheel trailer in May 2016, NHTSA said existing laws in the country posed few barriers to driver-assistance systems. Then-Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said weeks after the crash that NHTSA would release guidelines, rather than rules, for the technology. Congress hasn’t enacted any laws specifically addressing oversight of vehicle automation.
Musk alluded to this regulatory permissiveness in March when he was asked when Europeans will get to test Full Self-Driving, or FSD, a set of beta features available in the U.S. Contrary to the name, FSD doesn’t render Tesla cars capable of driving themselves.
“In the U.S., things are legal by default,” Musk said. “In Europe, they’re illegal by default. So we have to get approval beforehand, whereas in the U.S., you can kind of do it on your own cognizance, more or less.”
Tesla’s approach to automated-driving features contrasts with that of legacy automakers GM and Ford, whose systems use cameras behind the steering wheel to monitor whether drivers are paying attention. The companies also restrict use of the systems to highways their engineers have mapped and tested out before deploying the technology to drivers.
“Tesla sticks out like a sore thumb,” said David Friedman, who was deputy and acting administrator of NHTSA from 2013 to 2015. “And it has for years.”
NHTSA has repeatedly reminded the public — including in comments provided for this story — that no commercially available vehicle can drive itself. The agency has opened 31 special investigations into crashes involving driver-assistance systems, 24 of which involved Teslas. But the company keeps hawking FSD — and charges $12,000 for it.
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There’s growing discomfort with this state of play in Washington.
“I really dislike a lot of what Tesla has done, and at the top of the list in bright, bold letters, is Elon Musk’s habit of making false public claims, and using his podium in a way that creates safety risks,” Heidi King, a deputy and acting administrator of NHTSA during the Trump administration, said in an interview.
“We all admire his visionary attributes,” King said of Musk. “But visionary exaggerations about a consumer product can be very, very dangerous.”
— With assistance from Alan Levin and Dana Hull.