The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has opened an investigation into Tesla’s Autopilot driver-assist system, focusing on its ability to successfully spot parked emergency vehicles. The probe comes years after the first incidents involving Autopilot have been reported, and weeks following the roll-out of the latest features that are part of what Tesla calls “Full Self-Driving.”
The investigation itself concerns all current Tesla vehicles from the 2014 through the 2021 model years, as Teslas has offered the Autopilot driver-assistance system in all of its cars for several years, rolling out software updates over time. The agency has cited 11 such incidents in its announcement of an investigation, though the real number of instances is believed to be higher.
“Since January 2018, the Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) has identified eleven crashes in which Tesla models of various configurations have encountered first responder scenes and subsequently struck one or more vehicles involved with those scenes,” NHTSA said.
The investigation itself is expected to center on a relatively narrow issue: Autopilot’s ability to identify and respond to parked emergency vehicles in its path. A number of instances of Teslas hitting fire trucks have been reported where Autopilot use was suspected or confirmed, and have included Tesla vehicles rear-ending police cars and fire trucks at highway speeds. A number of these incidents have resulted in serious injuries.
“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 agency added. “The involved subject vehicles were all confirmed to have been engaged in either Autopilot or Traffic Aware Cruise Control during the approach to the crashes.”
Tesla’s Autopilot has already faced a number of investigations after some high-profile crashes, including the first crash involving a Tesla driver fatality in 2016, in which a Model S sedan drove under a 18-wheeler semi truck’s trailer that had been executing a turn in its path. Joshua Brown, 40, was killed in the crash that was subsequently investigated by NHTSA, with the agency noting the system’s inherent limitations in its final report.
“Advanced Driver Assistance Systems, such as Tesla’s Autopilot, require the continual and full attention of the driver to monitor the traffic environment and be prepared to take action to avoid crashes,” NHTSA stated at the conclusion of the report into the fatal 2016 crash. “Automated Emergency Braking systems have been developed to aid in avoiding or mitigating rear-end collisions. The systems have limitations and may not always detect threats or provide warnings or automatic braking early enough to avoid collisions.”
Curiously, NHTSA also notes that it will investigate just how Autopilot enforces driver attention to the Level 2 system, as required in fine print by Tesla, but at times ignored by those using it. NHTSA has investigated individual Tesla crashes in the past, but not on a macro level that could have implications for the system’s continued use without sufficient driver-monitoring systems.
In the meantime, a whole genre of videos have appeared on social media in past few years showing users letting Autopilot operate the car in traffic without being seated in the driver’s seat. Tesla has only recently started using an interior camera to monitor driver engagement, though it’s unclear if this has actually reduced instances of Autopilot abuse.
“The investigation will assess the technologies and methods used to monitor, assist, and enforce the driver’s engagement with the dynamic driving task during Autopilot operation,” the agency said.
In many ways it’s surprising that NHTSA has opened an investigation into these incidents only now, in the second half of 2021, years after the first instances occurred. The agency has faced criticism for years for refusing to take greater action in response to Autopilot incidents, and for taking an agnostic stance on whether such systems should be allowed on the market without sufficient driver monitoring systems in the first place. It’s worth noting once again that the first instances of Tesla vehicles hitting parked fire trucks from behind occurred years ago.
The investigation comes just a couple of months after Tesla indicated that it plans to move to a vision-only sensor suite in a number of its upcoming models, as it moves to expand Full Self-Driving capabilities via over-the-air updates for some percentage of vehicles. The automaker has frequently cited the evolution of vision-based operation, but has not indicated to regulators that FSD is designed to actually exceed SAE Level 2 abilities.
“Autopilot and Full Self-Driving Capability are intended for use with a fully attentive driver, who has their hands on the wheel and is prepared to take over at any moment,” the automaker states on its website. “While these features are designed to become more capable over time, the currently enabled features do not make the vehicle autonomous.”
In your next car purchase, would you specifically seek out cars that offer Level 2 capabilities, or is this not a major purchase variable? Let us know in the comments below.
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