The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has opened a formal investigation of Tesla’s Autopilot system because of its alleged inability to detect parked emergency vehicles, according to documents posted on its website today.
NHTSA said it knew of 11 crashes since 2018 when Tesla vehicles operating under Autopilot control hit fire trucks, police cars, and other vehicles with flashing lights that were stopped along roadways. Seven of those crashes resulted in a total of 17 injuries and one death.
The government agency said it would look at how Autopilot ensures that Tesla drivers are keeping their eyes on the road. The company’s owner’s manuals instruct drivers to keep their hands on the steering wheel, but Autopilot continues operating even if drivers only occasionally tap the wheel. General Motors similar Super Cruise system allows drivers to take their hands off the steering wheel but uses an infrared camera to monitor drivers’ eyes to make sure that they are looking at the road.
Investigation to Identify When Autopilot Can Be Turned On
NHTSA will also examine how the Tesla Autopilot identifies objects on the road and at what point Autopilot can be turned on. Tesla tells drivers to use the system only on divided highways, but they can actually be used on city streets. G.M.’s system uses GPS to restrict its use to major highways that don’t have oncoming or cross traffic, intersections, pedestrians or cyclists.
The investigation will cover an estimated 765,000 vehicles between 2014 and 2021. The NHTSA already has opened investigations into more than two dozen crashes involving Teslas and Autopilot, and said they include eight crashes that resulted in 10 fatalities.
Some of Autopilot’s weaknesses have been documented by safety experts, videos on social media and Tesla drivers themselves. In some accidents involving Autopilot, drivers of Teslas have been found asleep at the wheel or were awake but distracted or disengaged. The investigation could lead to a recall or other enforcement actions by NHTSA.