Tesla’s Autopilot to be investigated by US following crashes

Road agency to look at how Autopilot ensures drivers are paying attention to road

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it was aware of 11 crashes since 2018. Photograph: iStock

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it was aware of 11 crashes since 2018. Photograph: iStock

 

The US government’s top auto-safety agency has opened a formal investigation of Tesla’s Autopilot driver-assistance system because of growing concerns that it can fail to see parked emergency vehicles. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it was aware of 11 crashes since 2018 when Tesla vehicles operating under Autopilot control had hit fire trucks, police cars and other vehicles with flashing lights that were stopped along roadways. Seven of those crashes have resulted in a total of 17 injuries and one death.

“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 NHTSA said in a summary of the investigation.

The agency said it would look at how Autopilot ensures that Tesla drivers are paying attention to the road. The company’s owners’ manuals instruct drivers to keep their hands on the steering wheel, but Autopilot continues operating even if drivers only occasionally tap the wheel.

General Motors has a similar system, called Super Cruise, that allows drivers to take their hands off the steering wheel but uses an infrared camera to monitor drivers’ eyes to ensure that they are looking at the road.

NHTSA will also examine how Autopilot identifies objects on the road and where Autopilot can be turned on. Tesla tells drivers to use the system only on divided highways but they can use it on city streets. GM’s system uses GPS positioning to restrict its use to major highways that do not have oncoming or cross traffic, intersections, pedestrians or cyclists.

The investigation will look at the Tesla models Y, X, S and 3 from the 2014-19 model years. The NHTSA already has opened investigations into more than two dozen crashes involved Tesla cars and Autopilot. The agency has said they include eight crashes that resulted in a total of 10 fatalities.

Tesla and CEO Elon Musk have dismissed safety concerns about Autopilot and claimed that the system made its cars safer than others on the road. But the company has acknowledged that the system can sometimes fail to recognise stopped emergency vehicles.

Safety experts, videos posted on social media and Tesla drivers themselves have documented some of the weaknesses of Autopilot. In some accidents involving the system, drivers have been found asleep at the wheel or were awake but distracted or disengaged. A California man was arrested in May after leaving the driver’s seat of his Tesla while it was on Autopilot; he was sitting in the back of his car as it crossed the Bay Bridge that connects San Francisco and Oakland. – The New York Times