Derrick Monet and his wife, Jenna, were driving on an Indiana interstate in 2019 when their Tesla Model 3 sedan operating on Autopilot crashed into a parked fire truck. Derrick, then 25, sustained spine, neck, shoulder, rib and leg fractures. Jenna, 23, died at the hospital.
The incident was one of a dozen in the last four years in which Teslas using this driver-assistance system collided with first-responder vehicles, raising questions about the safety of technology the world’s most valuable car company considers one of its crown jewels.
Now, U.S. regulators are applying greater scrutiny to Autopilot than ever before. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which has the authority to force recalls, has opened two formal defect investigations that could ultimately lead Tesla Inc. to have to retrofit cars and restrict use of Autopilot in situations it still can’t safely handle.
A clampdown on Autopilot could tarnish Tesla’s reputation with consumers and spook investors whose belief in the company’s self-driving bona fides have helped make Tesla Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk the world’s wealthiest person. It could damage confidence in technology other auto and software companies are spending billions to develop in hope of reversing a troubling trend of soaring U.S. traffic fatalities.
It also could also bring long-simmering tensions between Washington and Tesla to a boil. The iconoclastic Musk has already derided NHTSA as the “fun police” and chafed at President Joe Biden’s unwillingness to lavish the pioneering company with praise. He’s not shy about lambasting lawmakers and regulators on Twitter, the social media platform he has offered to purchase for $43 billion.
Tesla, which reports earnings later this week, has lately had an aura of invincibility. As larger rivals were hobbled by the global chip shortage and other pandemic disruptions, the electric-car maker managed to substantially increase production. A modestly funded, slow-moving government agency is one of few obstacles threatening to throw it off course.
Musk and Tesla did not respond to requests for comment. “Making our vehicles safer is foundational to our company culture and how we innovate new technologies,” Rohan Patel, Tesla’s senior director of public policy and business development, wrote in a March letter to lawmakers.
A crackdown from NHTSA would follow repeated pleas from the National Transportation Safety Board, the independent accident-investigation agency, to tighten oversight of automated vehicles. The NTSB, which doesn’t have the power to compel carmakers to follow its recommendations, has suggested Tesla embrace automated-driving system safeguards that General Motors Co. and Ford Motor Co. have adopted for their systems. Tesla hasn’t responded to the NTSB’s guidance and instead continued its riskier approach.
“We essentially have the Wild West on our roads right now,” Jennifer Homendy, the chair of the NTSB, said in an interview. She describes Tesla’s deployment of features marketed as Autopilot and Full Self-Driving as artificial-intelligence experiments using untrained operators of 5,000-pound vehicles. “It is a disaster waiting to happen.”