The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has said it is launching an investigation into a Dec. 29 crash of a Tesla Model 3 that left a passenger dead after the vehicle collided with a parked fire truck in Indiana. According to a CNBC news report, this is the 14th crash involving Tesla that NHTSA’s special crash investigation program has taken up in which it suspects the company’s semi-autonomous Autopilot feature or other advanced driver assistance system was in use. Autopilot was engaged in at least three Tesla vehicles that were involved in fatal U.S. crashes since 2016.
This is also the third Tesla crash the agency is investigating in recent weeks. In addition to this one, NHTSA is investigating another Dec. 29 fatal crash of a Model S Tesla in Gardena. The vehicle in that incident exited the 91 Freeway, ran a red light, and struck a 2006 Honda Civic, killing its two occupants. Also in December, NHTSA said it was looking into a crash in which a Tesla Model 3 rear-ended a parked police car in Connecticut.
Questions Over Autopilot Safety
The crashes raised questions and concerns about Autopilot’s ability to detect hazards, in particular, stationary objects. Safety advocates have raised concerns about driver-assist systems, autonomous and semi-autonomous, that can perform driving tasks for extended periods of time with little or no human intervention. However, these are also systems that cannot completely replace human drivers.
In addition to Consumer Reports, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which has investigated a number of Tesla crashes, said the system’s design allowed the driver to disengage from the driving task. Tesla and NHTSA advise drivers to keep their hands on the steering wheel and pay attention at all times while using Autopilot. Tesla says Autopilot enables the car to steer, accelerate and brake automatically in its lane but doesn’t make the vehicle autonomous.
In November, U.S. Senator Ed Markey said Tesla should disable Autopilot until it installs new safeguards to prevent drivers from evading system limits that could allow them to fall asleep or become distracted. NHTSA has so far looked into 23 car accidents involving vehicles where it believed some form of advanced driver assistance system played a role.
Putting Safety First
Our auto defect attorneys have long questioned the safety and efficacy of not just Autopilot, but other driver-assist, semi-autonomous and autonomous features. While automakers and tech companies are eager to introduce these technologies to drivers, it remains unclear if drivers have a clear understanding of what it takes to use their technologies in a safe manner. The question remains: Are these technologies ready for primetime? In many cases, the answer has been a resounding “no.”