US agency starts probe into Tesla’s autopilot system

The investigation covers about 765,000 of the company's Model Y, X, S and 3 vehicles manufactured from 2014-2021

In the first quarter of this year, Tesla registered one accident for every 6.74 million kilometres driven with autopilot engaged. AFP
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The US government’s top auto-safety agency has initiated a formal probe into Tesla’s autopilot system after a series of crashes.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said the electric vehicle maker’s autopilot system has problems with detecting parked emergency vehicles.

It said it has identified nearly 11 accidents since 2018 when Tesla cars using the autopilot control have hit vehicles with flashing lights such as police cars and fire engines that were parked on the roadside. The incidents resulted in 17 injuries and one fatality.

“Most incidents took place after dark and the crash scenes encountered included scene control measures such as first responder vehicle lights, flares, an illuminated arrow board and road cones,” the agency said.

“The involved subject vehicles were all confirmed to have been engaged in either autopilot or traffic aware cruise control during the approach to the crashes,” it added.

The agency said it will also investigate how the autopilot system ensures drivers are paying the required attention to the road.

General Motors, the largest US car maker, offers a similar system called Super Cruise. It uses an infrared camera to monitor the eyes of drivers to ensure they are looking at the road when their hands are not on the steering wheel.

Tesla did not immediately respond to The National's request for comment.

The latest NHTSA investigation will cover nearly 765,000 Tesla cars including models Y, X, S and 3 manufactured in the past seven years. In March, the agency said it had opened 27 investigations into other crashes involving Tesla vehicles.

In one of the latest incidents in Houston in April, a Tesla car crashed into a tree and burst into flames, killing two people. Officials said the vehicle appeared to have been driving itself at the time of the crash.

On March 17, a Tesla in autopilot mode crashed into a parked police car in Michigan. In another accident on March 11, a Tesla car crashed into a lorry, leaving a passenger in a serious condition.

Tesla markets its automated driving systems under two brand names – autopilot and Full Self-Driving. All new Tesla cars come with the autopilot driver-assist feature as a standard option and the company sells the more advanced FSD at a premium for an additional $10,000.

Autopilot allows the car to steer, accelerate and brake automatically for other vehicles and pedestrians. FSD offers more enhanced features such as auto-parking and automatic lane changes while driving on the highway.

The car maker's decision to call its driver-assist system the autopilot could lead users to think the car could drive itself, according to some industry analysts.

However, the world's most valuable electric vehicle company has said it does not plan to make its cars fully autonomous. Autopilot is supposed to be engaged when there is a "fully attentive driver", who has their "hands on the wheel and is prepared to take over at any moment", according to Tesla.

In the first quarter of this year, Tesla registered one accident for every 6.74 million kilometres (4.18m miles) driven with the autopilot engaged.

The company recorded one accident for every 3.29m km when the autopilot was not engaged but other active safety measures were switched on.

Updated: August 16, 2021, 3:12 PM