US Launches Investigation of Tesla Autopilot Following Emergency Vehicle Crashes

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Tesla’s autopilot system sets it apart from the other big automakers, but the electric vehicle firm’s focus on self-driving technology has spurred a federal investigation. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is looking into Tesla Autopilot in the wake of a series of crashes involving Tesla vehicles and emergency vehicles, the AP reports. If the NHTSA finds Tesla is at fault, it could lead to a recall or other enforcement action that affects what Tesla is permitted to do with Autopilot. 

Tesla debuted Autopilot to the delight of Model S owners in 2014. The system, which uses cameras and (usually) radar, can identify nearby vehicles, recognize lane markers, and read road signs as it drives you from point A to point B. While Tesla offers more self-driving capabilities to owners than other automakers, Autopilot is not a true autonomous driving system. Drivers have to remain aware of their surroundings and be prepared to take over the wheel at any time. 

Still, a self-driving system should be able to recognize emergency vehicles with flashing lights, no matter how limited. The NHTSA says there have been 11 crashes since 2018 involving Tesla vehicles using Autopilot and emergency vehicles using flashing lights, flares, an illuminated arrow board, or cones warning of hazards. In these incidents, there have been 17 injuries and one death. The investigation covers the entire Tesla lineup: Model S, X, 3, and Y going back to 2014. 

Overhead signs present a challenge for autopilot systems

The first collision that caught the NHTSA’s attention was in January 2018 when a Tesla ran into a parked fire truck in California that was partially in the lane with its emergency lights flashing. First responders were attending to another crash when the car’s AI apparently failed to detect the truck. Further incidents occurred in Indiana, Massachusetts, Arizona, Texas, Connecticut, North Carolina, Michigan, and Florida. 

Tesla famously does not have a public relations department, preferring to allow CEO Elon Musk to say what he will on Twitter. This has occasionally gotten the company in hot water with regulators, but the cult of Musk is part of the deal with Tesla. Musk, who has almost 60 million Twitter followers, has not made a statement on the NHTSA investigation as of this posting. We will update in the event Musk has his say, which is probably inevitable.

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