US agency upgrades Tesla Autopilot safety probe, step before possible recall

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said Thursday it is upgrading its probe to 830,000 Tesla cars with its advanced driver assistance system, a step required before it can request a recall.

The Automotive Safety Agency in August opened a preliminary assessment to assess system performance in 765,000 vehicles after about a dozen crashes involving Tesla parked emergency vehicles — and said Thursday it had identified six additional accidents.

NHTSA is upgrading its probe to engineering analysis, which it should do before calling for a recall if necessary.

The Automotive Safety Regulator is reviewing whether Tesla cars adequately warrant the attention of drivers. The agency added evidence indicating that drivers in most of the crashes under review complied with Tesla’s alert strategy that seeks to get the driver’s attention, raising questions about its effectiveness.

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In 2020, the National Transportation Safety Board criticized “ineffective monitoring of driver participation” after the fatal 2018 autopilot accident and said the NHTSA provided “little oversight.”

NHTSA said the upgrade aims to “extend existing collision analysis, evaluate additional data sets, perform vehicle assessments, and explore the degree to which autopilot and associated Tesla systems may exacerbate human factors or behavioral safety risks by undermining the effectiveness of driver supervision.” “

Tesla, which has disbanded its press offices, did not respond to a request for comment. NHTSA said it has reported 16 accidents, including seven injuries and one death, involving Tesla vehicles on autopilot that collided with stationary first responder vehicles and road maintenance vehicles.

Democratic Senator Ed Markey praised the NHTSA promotion. “Every day that Tesla ignores safety rules and misleads the public about its ‘autopilot’ system, our roads become more dangerous,” he wrote on Twitter.

The NHTSA said its analysis indicated that forward collision warnings were activated in the majority of crashes just before a collision and that Automatic Post-Emergency Braking was involved in nearly half of all crashes.

“On average in these accidents, the autopilot aborts control of the vehicle less than one second before the first collision,” the agency added.

NHTSA noted that “if accident video was available, the approach to the first responder’s sight was visible to the driver an average of 8 seconds before the impact occurred.”

The agency also reviewed 106 reported autopilot accidents and said, in nearly half, “there were indications that the driver was not responding adequately to the needs of the dynamic driving task.”

“Driver use or misuse of vehicle components, or unintended operation of the vehicle does not necessarily rule out a system malfunction,” the agency said.

The NHTSA also found that in about a quarter of its 106 crashes, the primary crash factor appears to be related to the operation of the system as Tesla says restrictions may exist in places such as roads other than highways with limited access, or while in visibility environments that include factors such as rain or Snow or ice.

Tesla says autopilot allows vehicles to automatically brake and steer within their lanes but doesn’t make them able to drive themselves.

A NHTSA spokesperson said advanced driving assistance features can enhance safety “by helping drivers avoid crashes and mitigate accidents that do occur, but as with all technology and equipment in vehicles, drivers must use them correctly and responsibly.”

Last week, NHTSA said it asked Tesla to respond to questions by June 20 after it received 758 reports of unexpected brake activation linked to Autopilot in its separate investigation of 416,000 newer vehicles.

Separately, NHTSA 35 has opened a special investigation into Tesla vehicle collisions, in which it suspected the use of Autopilot or other advanced systems including 14 deaths reported since 2016, including a crash that killed three last month in California.

NHTSA asked dozens of other automakers including General Motors Toyota Motor Corp and Volkswagen to answer questions about “driver engagement and attention strategies” using driver assistance systems” during its Tesla investigation but did not release their responses.

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