Tesla cars involved in 16 crashes with emergency vehicles, regulators say

A US investigation into Tesla vehicles operating in partially automated driving systems that collided with parked emergency vehicles took a step closer to a recall.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said on Thursday it was updating the probe for an engineering review, another sign of increased scrutiny from the maker of electric vehicles and automated systems that perform at least some driving tasks. An engineering review is the final stage of an investigation, and in most cases, the NHTSA decides within one year whether there should be a recall or whether the investigation should be closed.

Documents published Thursday by the agency raise some serious issues about Tesla’s autopilot system. The agency found that it is being used in areas where its capabilities are limited and that many drivers are not taking steps to avoid accidents despite vehicle warnings.

The agency said it had reports of 16 collisions in emergency vehicles and trucks with warning signs, causing 15 injuries and one death.

NHTSA began its investigation in August of last year after a series of failures since 2018 in which Teslas using the company’s Autopilot or Traffic Aware Cruise Control systems hit vehicles in scenes where first responders were using flashing lights, flares, an illuminated turn signal or hazard warning cones.

The investigation now covers 830,000 vehicles, nearly all the Austin, Texas-based automaker has sold in the US since the start of the 2014 model year.

Investigators will assess additional data, vehicle performance, and “explore the degree to which Autopilot and associated Tesla systems can exacerbate human factors or behavioral safety risks, undermining the effectiveness of driver oversight,” the agency said.

NHTSA launches investigation into Tesla Autopilot system


In most of the 16 crashes, Teslas issued forward collision warnings to drivers shortly before impact. Automatic emergency braking intervened to at least slow the cars down in about half of the cases. On average, Autopilot gave up control of the Teslas less than a second before the crash, according to NHTSA documents.

In documents detailing the engineering review, NHTSA wrote that it is also investigating accidents involving similar patterns that did not include emergency vehicles or trucks with warning signs.

Hands on the steering wheel, but not on the steering wheel

The agency found that, in many cases, drivers had their hands on the wheel but had not taken steps to prevent an accident. “This suggests that drivers may be compliant with the driver engagement strategy as designed,” the agency wrote.

The investigators also wrote that a driver’s use or misuse of the driver monitoring system “or the unintentional operation of a vehicle does not necessarily exclude a system defect.”

The agency will have to decide whether there is a safety defect before seeking a recall.

In total, the agency analyzed 191 accidents, but removed 85 of them because other drivers were involved or there was not enough information to make a definitive assessment. Of the remaining 106, the primary cause of the crash appears to be running Autopilot in areas where it has limitations or conditions that could interfere with its operations. “For example, operating on roads other than limited access highways, or operating in low traction or visibility environments such as rain, snow or ice.”

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