Tesla’s Autopilot Scrutiny Grows as Federal Inquiry Updates

U.S. authorities have expanded an investigation into Tesla’s autopilot system after about a dozen collisions at accident scenes involving first-aid vehicles, the latest sign that regulators are stepping up scrutiny of automated driving capabilities.

The investigation, initially announced by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in August, has expanded to cover about 830,000 Tesla Model Y, X, S and 3 vehicles from the 2014 model year onwards. The regulator, which has the power to find cars defective and request recalls, said the vehicles now under investigation were involved in 14 accidents that resulted in 15 injuries and one fatality.

The inquiry was also converted from a preliminary investigation to an engineering review, according to documents published Thursday on the NHTSA website. The agency says the move will allow it to “extend existing accident analysis” and take other steps to determine the extent to which Tesla’s technology “may exacerbate human factors or behavioral safety risks, undermining the effectiveness of driver oversight.”

Tesla did not respond to a request for comment. Its shares fell 0.9% on Thursday. Shares are down 31% this year through Wednesday’s close.

In a statement, the NHTSA addressed a common misconception about automated driving systems, often called autonomous, by saying that “no commercially available motor vehicle today is capable of self-driving.”

In documents published Thursday, the agency cited the “predictable misuse” of Autopilot as a factor in its decision to expand the investigation.

“The use or misuse of vehicle components by a driver, or operation of a vehicle in an unintentional manner does not necessarily exclude a system defect,” the agency wrote. “This is particularly the case if the behavior of the driver in question is predictable in light of the design or operation of the system.”

Tesla is facing increased federal scrutiny on several fronts. Last week, NHTSA announced it was investigating 758 claims of Tesla cars suddenly braking at high speeds, part of an inquiry launched in February into the so-called “ghost braking” phenomenon. No accidents or injuries resulting from the braking problem were reported.

Tesla has marketed driver assistance features using the names Autopilot and Full Self-Driving, which still require drivers to keep their hands on the wheel. The company has drawn criticism from the likes of the National Transportation Safety Board, former NHTSA leaders and members of Congress over issues like branding the systems and whether it does enough to protect against inattention and misuse.

Security advocates in Washington applauded the NHTSA’s move to expand the investigation into the company’s autopilot system on Thursday.

“NHTSA appears to be getting closer and closer to taking firm action against Tesla, which we hope will be strong enough to permanently deter the company from continuing to mislead the public about the capabilities of its vehicles,” Michael Brooks, Interim Executive Director and The Center for Auto Safety’s chief advisor said via email.

Bloomberg writer Dana Hull contributed to this report.

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