Tesla Autopilot is threatened by NHTSA as investigation gets closer to recall

NHTSA announced today that its investigation into Tesla Autopilot has been upgraded to a step closer to a possible recall.

Last year, the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced that it is launching an investigation into Tesla Autopilot after identifying 11 crashes involving first responder vehicles.

Today, NHTSA announced that it is upgrading the investigation to an Engineering Analysis (EA):

PE21-020 is upgraded to an Engineering Analysis (EA) to extend the existing crash analysis, evaluate additional data sets, perform vehicle evaluations, and to explore the degree to which Autopilot and associated Tesla systems may exacerbate human factors or behavioral safety risks by undermining the effectiveness of the driver’s supervision. In doing so, NHTSA plans to continue its assessment of vehicle control authority, driver engagement technologies, and related human factors considerations.

This is often described as moving a step closer to asking for a recall, which could be a significant problem for Tesla, but we are not quite there yet.

On top of the upgrade to the investigation, NHTSA also identified five other crashes that it believes could be related to this issue with Autopilot under investigation:

  • Jan 2022 – Desert Center, CA
  • Sep 2021 – Petaluma. CA
  • Aug 2021 – Orlando, FL
  • Apr 2021 – Belmont, CA
  • Jan 2021 – Mount Pleasant, SC
  • Nov 2020 – Houston, TX

It’s far from the first time that Tesla’s Autopilot system is under investigation by NHTSA, but it has yet to lead to any recall. Several accidents linked to Autopilot were found to be due to driver inattention. This is not necessarily a defect with the manufacturer, but the manufacturer – in this case Tesla – has a “driver engagement strategy,” and if that’s determined to be inefficient, it could also be a problem.

NHTSA wrote in its report about the upgraded investigation today:

With respect to driver behavior, during this PE, NHTSA examined information submitted by Tesla and peer manufacturers in response to an IR question that requested driver engagement and attentiveness strategies to the DDT during system operation designated as Level 2. Of those crashes involving first responder or roadside maintenance vehicles for which car log data existed, under the driver engagement strategy alerts were presented to only two of the drivers within 5 minutes of the crash. This suggests that drivers may be compliant with the driver engagement strategy as designed.

There’s no timeline for the investigation to come to its final findings.

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