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Tesla Autopilot stirs US alarm as 'disaster waiting to happen'

Craig Trudell and Keith Laing, Bloomberg News on

Published in Automotive News

“NHTSA is empowered with robust tools and authorities to protect the public, to investigate potential safety issues, and to compel recalls when we find evidence of noncompliance or an unreasonable risk to safety,” a spokesperson for the agency said in a statement. “NHTSA has collected data and conducted research, developed test procedures and measured their effectiveness, which are all necessary requirements before a safety standard can be developed.”

Two Democratic Senators — Ed Markey and Richard Blumenthal — have called for the Federal Trade Commission to probe whether Tesla has deceptively marketed Autopilot and FSD. FTC Chair Lina Khan told the lawmakers in September she couldn’t reveal information regarding any non-public investigations.

Recall options

In the event NHTSA determines from either of its investigations there are defects pertaining to Autopilot, it can order Tesla to conduct recalls. Those could take a variety of different forms, because Tesla is permitted by law to choose how exactly it responds to such an order.

Addressing a defect could be as simple as beaming an over-the-air update to Tesla cars using their internet connection, much in the way smartphones receive software updates. Tesla has already carried out several recalls this way, and could update Autopilot's software to keep the system from operating in certain domains it's not yet able to safely navigate.

But pricier fixes may end up being needed. One example: Tesla could determine it needs to install cameras behind its steering wheel to monitor whether drivers are paying attention while using its systems, as other automakers do.

While the company has put cabin-facing cameras in its cars for years, they’re positioned over the rear-view mirror, rather than directly in front of the driver. Musk has said the cameras are meant for a robotaxi service that doesn’t yet exist.

It’s unlikely Tesla would opt for the most expensive outcome of all: replacing vehicles entirely. But a third option for manufacturers to remedy vehicles they’re forced to recall is to issue refunds, which also would be costly. Tesla has steadily increased the price of FSD, and used to charge thousands of dollars for Autopilot before making it a standard feature in 2019.

Tesla will have had it coming if NHTSA does take action on Autopilot, according to Friedman.

“The NTSB has been pointing out since that 2016 crash — where the Tesla literally couldn’t see the broadside of an 18-wheeler — that there are serious concerns,” Friedman, who is now vice president of advocacy for Consumer Reports, said in an interview. “How is it that an automated vehicle can’t safely maneuver around an emergency vehicle? That’s literally one of the first things you learn in driver’s ed: if there’s an emergency vehicle, you don’t run into it.”


Taking the mantle

When NHTSA first investigated more than five years ago whether Autopilot was defective, it found that the driver of the Tesla Model S that crashed into a trailer in Florida had ignored his Tesla’s warnings to maintain control. In a report stating it found no defect and was closing its probe, NHTSA said Tesla supplied data that showed Tesla vehicles’ crash rate dropped almost 40% after installation of Autosteer, an Autopilot feature.

Two years later, a data-analysis company issued a report calling that finding into question. Quality Control Systems, a firm that sued the Transportation Department to obtain the mileage and crash figures NHTSA studied, found the data was incomplete and criticized the company and regulator for making “tenuous” safety claims.

“NHTSA never, ever, ever, should have just taken Tesla at their word,” Friedman said. “It’s NHTSA’s responsibility to do high-quality analysis, and dot their i’s and cross their t’s. In this case, it doesn’t look like they did either.”

An agency spokesperson said NHTSA made no claim in its report regarding the effectiveness of Autosteer, and that it lacked critical information to do so.

NHTSA will have a fresh advantage in its latest probes of Autopilot: Now that other companies have followed Tesla to market with automated-driving features, the agency has other systems to compare against.

Friedman likens the situation to decades ago, when it wasn’t unusual for carmakers to put gas tanks behind or hovering over the rear axle. When manufacturers started moving tanks inboard, and Ford didn’t with its Pinto model — rendering the car prone to catching fire — the agency deemed the design an unreasonable safety risk.

“Only NHTSA knows their intentions relative to this,” Friedman said of the agency’s Autopilot investigations. “But it is certainly great to see NHTSA spending more time doing its core job when it comes to putting safety first.”

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