Tesla's Autopilot investigation could change the nature of auto recalls

Tesla autopilot fatalityNational Transportation Safety BoardThe Tesla involved in the fatal accident in May.

Just a few months after the federal government opened up its investigation into Tesla’s Autopilot system, the electric carmaker released a software update that could have prevented the whole ordeal in the first place.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration launched its investigation in June after a driver died in an accident that occurred while his Tesla Model S was operating with Autopilot activated. The Model S passed under a truck and, ultimately, drove off the road because the Autopilot system was unable to distinguish between the white truck and bright sky to apply the brake.

NHTSA closed the investigation on Thursday and said it will not issue a recall.

But the government agency also hinted that there is room for the nature of recalls to change if over-the-air updates can make cars safer.

“Sure I think that’s something we will take a look at in the future,” NHTSA spokesperson Bryan Thomas said when asked if NHTSA is considering changing the recall structure as over-the-air updates become more common. He added that such a change is not in the works right now.

Tesla and accountability

NHTSA raised two keys points when clearing Tesla of any wrongdoing.

One was that, as a Level 2 self-driving system, the onus was on the driver to monitor the system and intervene — something the driver who died in this accident had ample time to do. The other was that Autopilot was known to be unable to detect traffic crossing in front of the vehicle, so it was not defective when it didn’t apply the brake.

Thomas said that even though Tesla issued a software update in September 2016, which the company claimed could have prevented the accident, it shouldn’t be seen as a “remedy.” Essentially, Autopilot was not defective by not applying the brake before hitting the truck, even though it presumably would do so in the same situation today because of the software update.

Still, the Tesla investigation suggests that in the future, automakers may be able to avoid costly recalls through software updates before investigations into potential defects even close.

NHTSA even acknowledges that the Tesla update addressed some of its concerns about Autopilot in its report. That’s something most traditional automakers can’t currently do during an ongoing investigation because their vehicles aren’t capable of wireless updates. Instead, most car owners today have to take their vehicle to a dealer to get a software update.

In the future, NHTSA may change how it handles defects if it determines issuing a software update is faster than the recall process, Thomas said.

“These are questions the agency will have to deal with in the future, but we would very much like to move quickly toward that future,” Thomas said.

Still, at least for now, automakers are still on the hook for a recall if a defect is found, even if a simple over-the-air update could fix it.

“While we are getting to an era of being able to do over the air updates and correct problems as they arise, it doesn’t change the manufacturer’s responsibility that if a defect has been identified they still have to file a 573 and issue a recall,” Thomas said.

“In the future, if a defect was identified, it’s not enough just to issue a software update, an actual recall has to be issued. And then that software update can happen,” he continued.

Ultimately, the Tesla investigation highlights how the government will need to race the clock to ensure automakers are held accountable for defects, even if they can be fixed easily with software updates.

NOW WATCH: Watch a Tesla predict an accident and react before it even happens

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