The federal government’s top auto safety agency has opened a formal investigation into Tesla’s Autopilot driver assistance system over growing concerns that it cannot see parked emergency vehicles.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it was aware of 11 accidents since 2018 in which Tesla vehicles driving under Autopilot control had hit fire engines, police cars and other vehicles with flashing lights that had stopped along roads. Seven of those crashes resulted in a total of 17 injuries and one death.
“Most of the incidents took place after dark and the crash scenes found included scene management measures such as emergency vehicle lighting, flares, an illuminated arrow sign and road cones,” the security service said in a summary of the investigation.
The new research appears to be the broadest look yet at how Autopilot works and how it could be flawed. It could eventually be used by the safety agency to force Tesla to recall cars and make changes to the system.
A critical issue that researchers will focus on is how Autopilot makes Tesla drivers pay attention to the road. The company’s owner’s manuals instruct drivers to keep their hands on the wheel, but the system will continue to work even if drivers only tap the wheel occasionally.
The transition to electric cars
General Motors has a similar system called Super Cruise that allows drivers to take their hands off the wheel, but uses an infrared camera to monitor the driver’s eyes to make sure they’re looking at the road.
The security service will also investigate how Autopilot identifies objects on the road and where Autopilot can be turned on. Tesla tells drivers to only use the system on divided highways, but they can use it on city streets. GM’s system uses GPS positioning to limit its use to major highways with no oncoming or intersecting traffic, intersections, pedestrians or bicyclists.
Tesla’s Autopilot system appears to have problems detecting and braking parked cars in general, including private cars and trucks without flashing lights. In July, for example, a Tesla collided with a parked sports car at the site of an earlier accident. The driver was on autopilot and had fallen asleep and later failed a sobriety test, the California Highway Patrol said.
The agency’s investigation will look at Tesla’s Y, X, S and 3 models from the 2014 to 2021 model years, totaling 765,000 cars, a large majority of the cars the company made in the United States during that time.
The agency has already opened investigations into more than two dozen crashes involving Tesla cars and Autopilot. The agency has said eight of those crashes resulted in a total of 10 fatalities. Those investigations are designed to delve into the details of individual cases to provide data and insights that the agency and automakers can use to improve safety or identify problem areas.
Tesla and its CEO, Elon Musk, have dismissed safety concerns about Autopilot, claiming the system made its cars safer than others on the road. But the company has acknowledged that the system sometimes fails to recognize stopped emergency vehicles.
Safety experts, social media videos and Tesla drivers themselves have documented some of Autopilot’s weaknesses. In some accidents involving the system, Tesla drivers were found asleep at the wheel or awake but distracted or turned off. A California man was arrested in May after leaving the driver’s seat of his Tesla while it was on Autopilot; he was in the back of his car when he crossed the Bay Bridge, which connects San Francisco and Oakland.
The National Transportation Safety Board, which has investigated a number of Autopilot accidents, said last year that “ineffective driver involvement monitoring” contributed to a 2018 crash that left Wei Huang, the driver of a Model X that hit a highway barrier, to life came. in Mountain View, California. “It’s time to stop allowing drivers in a partially automated vehicle to pretend they have driverless cars,” said Robert L. Sumwalt, the chairman of the board of directors, last year.