Tesla Autopilot Inches toward Recall after Numerous Crashes

Tesla Driver Relies on Autopilot
Tesla's Autopilot system is failing to prevent crashes. Is the fault with this automated system, with driver behavior, or both?

Tesla made be headed for a recall, at least those with partially automated driving systems. Already under investigation for safety, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is doubling down on its examination of Tesla cars. The reason? A number of collisions between Tesla automobiles and both parked emergency vehicles and trucks with warning signs.

The Tesla probe will be upgraded to include an engineering analysis, signaling a closer look at the electric vehicle company and its automated systems that carry out some of the tasks normally performed by drivers. Once an engineering analysis is called for, an NHTSA investigation has reached its final stage. The government agency should report its findings within a year, along with its recommendations. In this case, there will either be a recall, or the investigation will officially be closed.

Thus far, the NHTSA has found that the Tesla Autopilot system is being used where its abilities are limited. Tesla drivers are not taking steps to prevent collisions, in spite of warnings they receive from the vehicle.

16 Collisions, 15 Injuries, 1 Death

The NHTSA investigation is looking at a lot of Tesla cars, 830,000 of them to be exact. That would be almost all Tesla stock sold in the US since the beginning of the 2014 model year. So far, the NHTSA probe has found 16 collisions that have resulted in 15 injuries and a single death.

The investigators will also be looking at driver performance as a factor in the crashes, in order to “explore the degree to which Autopilot and associated Tesla systems may exacerbate human factors or behavioral safety risks undermining the effectiveness of the driver’s supervision.”

In most of the crashes reported, drivers received alerts just prior to impact. In half of the cases, automatic emergency braking helped slow the cars. On average, however, Autopilot surrendered control of the electric vehicles less than a second before a crash was about to occur.

Drivers Rely on Autopilot Instead of Paying Attention

While in many cases, drivers had their hands on the steering wheel as required by Tesla, they failed to do anything to prevent a crash. Drivers should have been able to see the emergency vehicles at around 8 seconds before impact. That is plenty of time to respond. The implication of the failure to do so is that drivers aren’t paying attention. They think their autopilot system is taking care of things so they don’t need to.

The NHTSA still has to figure out if the Autopilot systems have a safety defect since faulty driver behavior, “or operation of a vehicle in an unintended manner does not necessarily preclude a system defect.”

In the meantime, the National Transportation Safety Board is recommending that NHTSA and Tesla limit the use of Autopilot to those areas where it can operate in safety. They also suggest requiring Tesla to figure out a better system to get drivers to pay better attention. There are no cars yet on the market that are completely autonomous. “Every available vehicle requires the human driver to be in control at all times, and all state laws hold the human driver responsible for operation of their vehicles,” the agency said.



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