- The US government is ramping up efforts to understand Tesla’s controversial Autopilot tech.
- The US has launched a new investigation, made a key hire, and asked Tesla lots of questions.
- NHTSA is looking into crashes involving Teslas and emergency vehicles.
That tendency to push the envelope has granted CEO Elon Musk an obscene net worth and earned Tesla legions of loyal fans. But as of late, it’s also landed the company in hot water with regulators.
A new investigation, a key hire, and broad requests for information show the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is ramping up efforts to understand – and potentially take action on – the carmaker’s controversial driver-aiding technology known as Autopilot.
Autopilot uses cameras to automate some driving tasks but doesn’t make cars autonomous. It keeps a Tesla centered in its lane and accelerates and brakes automatically as traffic dictates, but drivers still need to pay full attention. For years, critics have argued that Tesla needs to make the system safer and do more to discourage distracted driving. They also contend that the Autopilot name overstates what the tech can handle.
NHTSA has opened investigations into Tesla crashes before, but in August, it launched a new probe zeroing in on wrecks involving Teslas and emergency vehicles. The agency has identified a dozen recent incidents where Tesla vehicles collided with stopped emergency vehicles with Autopilot or cruise control switched on. It gave Tesla until late October to furnish a huge amount of information about its vehicles and about how Autopilot functions.
A month later, NHTSA requested information from 12 other automakers about their similar driver-assistance systems. And in October, NHTSA asked Tesla why it remotely updated Autopilot to better detect first-responder scenes without acknowledging a defect to the agency. NHTSA also took the opportunity to express concerns and ask questions about Tesla’s Full Self-Driving beta software, a more advanced version of Autopilot that the company is releasing to more owners despite it still being a prototype product with glaring flaws.
Also in October, news broke that NHTSA had tapped Missy Cummings, a Duke University professor specializing in vehicle autonomy who has criticized how automakers including Tesla are deploying their driver-assistance systems, as a senior safety advisor.
Tesla is also facing pressure from the National Transportation Safety Board, which doesn’t have the power to enforce laws but can make safety recommendations to companies, lawmakers, and NHTSA. On Monday, the NTSB sent a letter to Musk expressing “deep concerns” that Tesla never responded to Autopilot safety recommendations it issued in 2017.
Tesla, for its part, has maintained that Autopilot makes driving safer. But experts say the automaker fails to back up that claim with data.
Musk’s strategy of playing it fast and loose seems to be working. The company’s valuation recently soared past $US1 ($AU1) trillion, despite selling far fewer vehicles than its rivals. Investors are placing immense value on Tesla’s future innovations in the realm of autonomous vehicles.
But these recent developments indicate that regulation may be coming after years of the US government taking a hands-off approach to driver-assistance tech.
In March, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg said that “the policy framework in the US has not really caught up with the technology platforms,” adding that “we intend to pay a lot of attention for that and do everything we can within our authorities.”