Tesla’s Autopilot System Is Being Formally Investigated by the U.S. Government

Tesla’s Autopilot System Is Being Formally Investigated by the U.S. Government
Photo: Spencer Platt / Staff, Getty Images

The U.S. government is opening a formal probe into Tesla’s Autopilot software over the automated system’s reported tendency to send cars crashing headlong into emergency vehicles.

The investigation, led by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, will cover Tesla Models Y, X, S, and 3 vehicles released from 2014 through 2021 — an estimated total of 765,000 vehicles which, when combined, comprise nearly the entirety of Tesla’s stock in the U.S.

According to Reuters, the NHTSA said that it has identified 11 crashes since 2018 in which Teslas on autopilot or cruise control “encountered first responder scenes and subsequently struck one or more vehicles involved with those scenes,” including those at sites where the software failed to recognise red flashing lights, flares, illuminated arrow boards or hazard cones that were used to denote an emergency. As a result of those crashes, the agency reported that 17 injuries and one death had occurred.

Although the NHTSA said that the investigation is still in the early stages, the agency said that it aims to “assess the technologies and methods used to monitor, assist, and enforce the driver’s engagement with the dynamic driving task during Autopilot operation.”

Despite the fact that Tesla’s driving assist manual warns users that they must be prepared to manually override the automated system at all times, users frequently abuse the software, using the self-driving cars as an easy mode of transportation when intoxicated, tired, or otherwise incapacitated. Stationary objects — including emergency vehicles parked on the shoulder of a road near a crime scene — seem to pose a particularly acute problem: As experts noted to Wired in 2018, semiautonomous driving systems use radar that’s adept at detecting moving objects, but notably less sensitive when it comes to identifying stationary ones.

The NHTSA’s announcement of the probe comes just four months after U.S. Senators urged the agency to investigate Tesla in the aftermath of a fatal crash in Texas. During that incident, the two men killed had been riding in the front passenger seat and back seat when the fully electric vehicle failed to properly execute a turn at a high speed and crashed into a tree.

In a statement to Reuters, the NHTSA reminded consumers that “no commercially available motor vehicles today are capable of driving themselves … Certain advanced driving assistance features can promote safety by helping drivers avoid crashes and mitigate the severity of crashes that occur, but as with all technologies and equipment on motor vehicles, drivers must use them correctly and responsibly.”