The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has now opened 30 separate investigations into Tesla vehicle crashes that resulted in 10 deaths and may have involved the use of the automaker’s semi-autonomous Autopilot system.
Tesla has heavily promoted Autopilot since the technology was first introduced in 2015, CEO Elon Musk now promising a fully hands-free version is in the offing. But the system has come under fire repeatedly, critics contending the automaker has overhyped Autopilot’s capabilities, leading to some motorists taking potentially fatal risks.
NHTSA and the National Transportation Safety Board have conducted numerous investigations during the last several years and concluded that Autopilot, as well as driver error, have been involved in several fatal crashes.
NHTSA released its first full list of Autopilot-related investigations on Thursday, following a request by Reuters.
Autopilot linked to numerous crashes, fatalities
“Of the 30 Tesla crashes,” the news service reported, “NHTSA has ruled out Tesla’s Autopilot in three and published reports on two of the crashes.”
For its part, the NTSB has determined Autopilot has been involved in at least three fatal U.S. crashes since 2016. And the safety of the system has gotten more attention lately following several other crashes, including one in Texas in April in which two men were killed.
“It seems like every other week we’re hearing about a new vehicle that crashed when it was on Autopilot,” Senate Commerce Committee chair Maria Cantwell said on Wednesday.
The auto industry is in a race to develop technology that will allow motorists to take their hands off the wheel and even permit vehicles to operate without conventional controls, including a steering wheel, throttle and brake pedals.
Critics claim Tesla overhypes Autopilot’s capabilities
Several manufacturers now allow limited operation in hands-free mode, including General Motors’ Super Cruise and Ford’s BlueCruise. Tesla advises motorists they actually need to keep their hands on the wheel, at least lightly, when using Autopilot. But critics contend the automaker has downplayed that guidance. Shortly after the system was released, a photo was released by Musk showing him driving a Tesla Model S with his hands waving out the window.
The latest version of the system has been promoted by Tesla as “full self-driving,” even though the company website notes that it is “intended for use with a fully attentive driver who has their hands on the wheel and is ready to take over at any moment.”
One of the problems is Tesla vehicles do not have a way to ensure a driver actually is attentive and ready to respond to an emergency. Indeed, as TheDetroitBureau.com has reported, there have been numerous reports, including Twitter and Facebook posts, showing drivers asleep in a Tesla operating in Autopilot mode. Texas police initially reported that no one appeared to even be in the driver’s seat at the time of the fatal April 17 crash. One of the earliest fatal Autopilot crashes involved a Florida driver who was watching videos and failed to act when a truck crossed in front of his vehicle.
Coming under fire — again
Most other manufacturers, including GM, Ford, Mercedes-Benz and others, use various monitoring devices, such as cameras, to ensure a driver is awake and attentive. That is a key reason why the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Consumer Reports and others have ranked Autopilot below competing systems like GM Super Cruise.
Tesla recently came under fire again for its decision to stop using a front-facing radar sensor for Autopilot on its Models 3 and Y. They will rely solely on camera technology. The carmaker claims the system will be just as safe. But some analysts believe the move may have been taken due to the ongoing shortage of semiconductors plaguing the auto industry in general.
The IIHS, Consumer Reports and others have downgraded the vehicles due to the change, warning safety could be compromised.
Tesla did announce last month that it will begin installing a driver monitoring system for Autopilot.
Other autonomous systems linked to crashes
The California EV maker isn’t the only one who has come under federal investigation for crashes involving autonomous vehicle technology.
NHTSA has open six other investigations, Reuters reported. Two involved Cadillacs apparently using Super Cruise. Another two involved 2012 Lexus RX450H SUV and a 2017 Navya Arma No injuries were reported in any of those.
Prototype Ubers were involved in the other two crashes. One resulted in the death of a pedestrian. In that 2018 Arizona incident, the company modified a Volvo XC90 to use its hands-free technology. The vehicle’s own crash avoidance system was disabled. The driver was later accused of looking away from the road at the time of the accident.
Uber sold its self-driving unit last December but still hopes to eventually switch to fully driverless vehicles that will reduce its operating costs.