Is NHTSA Getting Ready to Formally Investigate Tesla's Autopilot?
Newly disclosed records may suggest that the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) may be preparing a formal investigation into Tesla Inc.’s semi-autonomous, driver-assist system known as Autopilot. According to The Detroit News, the agency has issued at least five subpoenas since April 2018 for information about Tesla vehicle crashes, NHTSA’s correspondence with Tesla show. These documents were obtained by Plainsite, a legal transparency group, which put in a public records request for communications regarding Autopilot.
NHTSA has also asked Tesla to provide results of internal tests on a sub-component of the Model 3 sedan’s automatic emergency braking system and sales figures of vehicles sold with and without Autopilot since mid-2016, among other requests, according to the records. Experts say the subpoenas show that NHTSA has concerns about the performance of Autopilot. The subpoenas could also mean that the agency is gathering information that would be supportive of a formal investigation.
Autopilot Not Designed for Our Roads
NHTSA doesn’t have an active defect probe into Tesla and it might not open one. Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk has defended the Autopilot saying the system enhances safety and makes vehicles safer. NHTSA sent the subpoenas and other requests amid a series of high-profile Tesla crashes that date to early 2018, which drew scrutiny from federal agencies and safety advocates alike.
According to records, two subpoenas were issued March 11, with one seeking information and data about a Tesla that crashed just 10 days prior in Delray Beach, Florida, where a Model 3 driver was killed when the car crashed into the side of a semi-truck while the Autopilot was engaged. Both NTSA and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) have investigated a number of Tesla crashes in recent years.
In 2017, the NTSB found that Tesla’s Autopilot design that allowed drivers to engage it on roads for which it was not designed, contributed to a fatal 2016 crash in Florida involving a Model S. Records released earlier this month show that NHTSA has continued to closely monitor Tesla’s Autopilot feature even after it closed an earlier investigation into the system that found no defect. In May, Consumer Reports called on NHTSA to make another inquiry into Autopilot. Consumer Reports criticized Tesla for allowing the system to be used on roads it’s not yet able to handle.
Our auto defect lawyers have maintained that Tesla’s Autopilot has not been ready for our roadways. Autopilot is only a semi-autonomous feature that continually requires driver’s attention. However, its name is misleading to drivers lulling them into a false sense of security. As a result, we see drivers engage Autopilot and doze off or use Autopilot when they’ve had a few drinks. Obviously, these are dangerous driving habits that could have catastrophic consequences. We hope NHTSA conducts a thorough and formal investigation of Tesla’s Autopilot system. If it’s not ready for our current roadway system, it should not be out there.