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NHTSA Investigating Tesla Autopilot–Related Crashes with Emergency Vehicles

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  • The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is looking at 11 crashes in nine states, but 765,000 Tesla Model Y, Model X, Model S and Model 3 electric vehicles could be affected by a possible future recall.
  • This preliminary evaluation is focused on Tesla vehicles that crashed at scenes where first responders were active, often in the dark, with either Autopilot or Traffic Aware Cruise Control engaged.
  • NHTSA made extra clear in its statement on the opening of the probe that “No commercially available motor vehicles today are capable of driving themselves.”

    The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has opened a preliminary evaluation into Tesla Autopilot systems and the ways this driver assistance technology works to “monitor, assist, and enforce the driver’s engagement with driving while Autopilot is in use.”

    The reason for the preliminary evaluation is so that the agency can better understand the causes of 11 Tesla crashes that have happened since the start of 2018, a NHTSA spokesperson told Car and Driver in a statement. Seventeen injuries and one death are part of these 11 incidents. More Tesla crashes in which Autopilot was said to factor have happened, of course, but these are the 11 that NHTSA will look into to determine what the agency’s next steps should be regarding Tesla’s technology.

    This subset of Tesla Autopilot crashes is important to NHTSA because they all involved cases where first responders were active, the agency said, “including some that crashed directly into the vehicles of first responders.” NHTSA told C/D that it confirmed that in all of these cases, the Tesla vehicles in question either had Autopilot or Traffic Aware Cruise Control engaged just prior to the crashes. Most of the incidents also happened after dark, the agency said, and “the crash scenes encountered included scene control measures such as first responder vehicle lights, flares, an illuminated arrow board, and road cones.”

    While this preliminary evaluation is only looking at 11 incidents in nine states, NHTSA said that an estimated 765,000 Tesla Model Y, Model X, Model S and Model 3 electric vehicles built between 2014 and 2021 could be affected by whatever remedy NHTSA decides on. These kinds of safety probes often result in a recall or technical service bulletin but, for now, NHTSA is simply collecting information about how Tesla’s Autopilot and Traffic Aware Cruise Control technologies work, and if the way they operate contributed to these crashes.

    This is not the first time NHTSA has opened up an investigation into Tesla’s vehicles. In late 2019, NHTSA asked Tesla for information on how the automaker responds to fires in its vehicles. In early 2020, the agency started looking at a half-million Teslas because of sudden-acceleration complaints. Tesla infotainment screens, suspensions, and power steering components, among other things, have all come to the agency’s attention in the past few years.

    The trick with Tesla’s Autopilot name, as has been said many times, is that it is an advanced driver assistance system (ADAS), not an actual self-driving vehicle technology. Tesla itself makes sure to tell its drivers to keep their attention on the road, but the online Tesla community is full of people showing off how their EVs can “drive themselves.” The NHTSA specifically spoke out against this in its statement on the safety probe:

    “NHTSA reminds the public that no commercially available motor vehicles today are capable of driving themselves. Every available vehicle requires a human driver to be in control at all times, and all state laws hold human drivers responsible for operation of their vehicles. 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.”

    Tesla does not have a media relations department to comment on issues like this.

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