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Tesla Autopilot Safety Gap Linked to Collisions

Federal authorities show "critical safety gap" in Tesla's Autopilot system, has been implicated in 467 collisions
April 29, 2024

Federal authorities have identified a "critical safety gap" in Tesla's Autopilot system, linking it to at least 467 collisions, 13 of which resulted in fatalities and "many others" causing serious injuries.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) revealed these findings after analyzing 956 crashes involving Tesla Autopilot over nearly three years. The report, published on Friday, highlights the system's failure to ensure proper driver attention and usage.

According to the NHTSA, Tesla's Autopilot design has led to "foreseeable misuse and avoidable crashes." The system lacks sufficient measures to ensure driver engagement, allowing Autopilot to remain active even when the driver isn't attentively monitoring the road or the driving task.

The agency particularly criticized the "weak driver engagement system," which includes prompts like "nags" or chimes reminding drivers to pay attention and keep their hands on the wheel. Additionally, in-cabin cameras are supposed to detect when a driver isn't focused on the road.

In response to these findings, the NHTSA has initiated a new investigation into the effectiveness of a software update Tesla issued as part of a December recall. The update aimed to address Autopilot defects identified during the investigation.

Despite the recall, crashes related to Autopilot continue to be reported. One such incident occurred on April 19 in Snohomish County, Washington, where a Tesla driver, reportedly using Autopilot, struck and killed a motorcyclist.

This NHTSA report adds to a series of regulator and watchdog reports questioning the safety of Tesla’s Autopilot technology. Tesla, on its website, promotes Autopilot as a feature designed to reduce driver workload through advanced cruise control and automatic steering technology.

Despite requests for comment, Tesla has not responded to the NHTSA report. However, Sens. Edward J. Markey and Richard Blumenthal issued a statement urging federal regulators to restrict Tesla's Autopilot feature to roads it was designed for.

Tesla settled a lawsuit earlier this month with the family of Walter Huang, an Apple engineer who died in a crash while using Autopilot. The terms of the settlement were not disclosed.

In the face of mounting concerns, Tesla and CEO Elon Musk are doubling down on autonomous driving, with Musk stating, “If somebody doesn’t believe Tesla’s going to solve autonomy, I think they should not be an investor in the company.” 

However, Tesla's claims about its Autopilot system have faced scrutiny. Musk has promised autonomous driving capabilities with software updates, yet Tesla currently offers only driver assistance systems and has not produced self-driving vehicles.

Philip Koopman, an automotive safety researcher and Carnegie Mellon University associate professor of computer engineering, criticized Tesla's marketing, referring to it as "autonowashing." He hopes Tesla will take the NHTSA's concerns seriously and make necessary improvements to ensure safety.

"People are dying due to misplaced confidence in Tesla Autopilot capabilities. Even simple steps could improve safety," Koopman said. "Tesla could automatically restrict Autopilot use to intended roads based on map data already in the vehicle. Tesla could improve monitoring so drivers can’t routinely become absorbed in their cellphones while Autopilot is in use."

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