Sirens and flashing lights of fire engines, ambulances, and police cars are designed to let drivers know what is up ahead and are easy to spot. However, in several cases over the last 3 years, Tesla’s autopilot function has missed these warnings and led to 11 accidents where the cars have crashed into emergency vehicles, and others at the scene causing 17 injured people, and 1 death.
The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) has launched an investigation covering 750,000 vehicles of all current Tesla models from 2014-2021 – essentially all available Tesla’s on the market after the crashes due to the Autopilot and Traffic Aware Cruise Control functions.
How does Autopilot work? Cameras, radars, and ultrasonic sensors support the two major features of Tesla: Traffic Aware Cruise Control and Autosteer. These two functions have allowed driving features such as autopark, and auto lane change.
Tesla has continuously warned that these technologies still require driver control and supervision and does not mean that autopilot is autonomous as it cannot make decisions or detect certain warnings and hazards – such as emergency vehicle lights.
The issue of autopilot driving has persisted long before this investigation. Going back to June 2016, there have been 31 autopilot related accidents regardless of the continuous reminders that drivers using the systems must be ready to intervene at all times.
The reason for these accidents is most often due to the function being severely misused by Tesla drivers. There have been cases of drunk drivers using the function to get themselves home, or even users riding in the backseat while the car drives on the highway. One Tesla driver in Alberta was caught sleeping at the wheel while the car took him home from work.
The investigation by the NHTSA will assess the technologies and methods used to monitor, assist, and enforce the driver’s engagement with the driving task during Autopilot operation. An investigation could lead to a recall or other enforcement action taken by the NHTSA and Tesla as a company.
Investors have made Tesla the most valuable car company in the world, and there has been movement on creating a completely self-driving car. However, it should be reminded that no commercially available vehicles today are capable of driving themselves. Every vehicle, regardless of autopilot functions, should always have a human driver in control.
This is not the first time federal governments have investigated Tesla’s Autopilot, and have placed pressure on Tesla to revaluate technologies the company uses. These measures show that tougher stances on automated vehicle safety are beginning to form and force us to look and assess how far technology should be taken in creating a vehicle.