The Tesla Autopilot investigation was closed after the feds found 13 fatal crashes related to misuse

Image credits: Tesla

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has closed a long-running investigation into Tesla's Autopilot system after reviewing hundreds of crashes involving its misuse, including 13 that were fatal and “several of which involved serious injuries.”

At the same time, NHTSA is opening a new investigation to evaluate whether the Autopilot recall fix that Tesla implemented in December was effective enough.

NHTSA's Office of Defects Investigation said documents It released on Friday that it had completed “an extensive body of work” that showed evidence that “Tesla’s weak driver engagement system was not adequate for Autopilot’s lax operating capabilities.”

“This mismatch has created a serious safety gap between drivers’ expectations [Autopilot’s] “The operating capabilities and true capabilities of the system,” the agency wrote. “This gap led to predictable misuse and avoidable accidents.”

The closure of the preliminary investigation, which began in 2021, marks the end of one of the government's most prominent efforts to audit Tesla's Autopilot software. However, Tesla is still feeling the pressure of several other inquiries.

The Department of Justice is also investigating the company's claims about the technology, and the California Department of Motor Vehicles has accused Tesla of falsely advertising Autopilot capabilities and a more advanced full self-driving pilot program. The company is also facing multiple lawsuits regarding Autopilot. Meanwhile, Tesla is now “walking to the wall for autonomy,” according to CEO Elon Musk.

NHTSA said its investigation reviewed 956 reported crashes through August 30, 2023. In nearly half of those crashes (489), the agency said either “there was insufficient data to make an assessment,” the other vehicle was at fault, and Autopilot was found not to be operating. use, or the accident is unrelated to the probe.

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The remaining 467 crashes occurred in three buckets, NHTSA said. There have been numerous (211) crashes in which “the front plane of a Tesla struck another vehicle or obstruction with sufficient time for an alert driver to react to avoid or mitigate the collision.” It said 145 incidents involved “running off the road in low traction conditions such as wet roads.” It said 111 of those crashes involved “a departure from the road where the Autosteer system was inadvertently disengaged through driver input.”

These crashes “are often severe because neither the system nor the driver reacts appropriately, resulting in high-speed differentials and high-energy crash outcomes,” the agency wrote.

Tesla asks drivers to pay attention to the road and keep their hands on the wheel while using Autopilot, which it measures via a torque sensor and, in its newer cars, via an in-cabin camera. But NHTSA and other safety groups say those warnings and checks aren't enough. In December, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said these measures were “insufficient to prevent abuse.”

Tesla agreed to issue a recall via a software update that would theoretically increase driver monitoring. But this update doesn't appear to change Autopilot much — a sentiment the NHTSA seems to agree with.

Parts of this recall fix require the owner to “opt in,” and Tesla allows the driver to “easily reverse” some warranties, according to the NHTSA.

NHTSA spent nearly three years working on the Autopilot investigation, and met or interacted with Tesla several times throughout the process. It conducted many direct examinations of the incidents, and relied on the company to provide data about them as well.

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But the agency criticized Tesla's data one of Supporting documents.

“Gaps in Tesla's telematics data create uncertainty regarding the actual rate at which Autopilot-powered vehicles are involved in crashes. Tesla is not aware of every crash involving Autopilot, even in severe crashes, due to gaps in reporting,” NHTSA wrote. Remotely According to the agency, Tesla “largely receives data from crashes only through pyrotechnic deployment,” that is, when the airbags, seatbelt pretensioners, or pedestrian mitigation feature in the car's hood are activated.

NHTSA claims that limiting this level means Tesla only collects data on about 18% of crashes that are reported to police. As a result, NHTSA wrote, the investigation revealed incidents in which Autopilot was engaged and Tesla was not notified via IT.

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