US roads agency investigates Tesla crashes that killed two motorcyclists

The partially automated vehicles, which may not stop for motorcycles, are posing a new and serious threat on motorways

A Utah Department of Public Safety photo shows the scene of an accident involving a Tesla and a motorcycle on July 24 near the city of Draper. AP
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Two crashes involving Tesla vehicles apparently running on Autopilot are drawing scrutiny from federal regulators and point to a potential hazard on US motorways: the partially automated vehicles may not stop for motorcycles.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) sent investigation teams to two crashes last month in which Teslas collided with motorcycles on motorways in the darkness. Both were fatal.

The agency suspects that Tesla's partially automated driver-assist system was in use in each. It said that once it gathers more information, it may include the crashes in an broader investigation into Teslas striking emergency vehicles parked along motorways.

The NHTSA also is investigating more than 750 complaints that Teslas can brake for no reason.

The first crash involving a motorcyclist happened at 4.47am on July 7 on State Route 91 in Riverside, California. A white Tesla Model Y SUV was travelling east in the high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane. Ahead of it was a rider on a green Yamaha V-Star motorcycle, the California Highway Patrol (CHP) said in a statement.

At some point, the vehicles were in collision, and the unidentified motorcyclist was thrown from the Yamaha. He was pronounced dead at the scene by the fire department.

Whether or not the Tesla was operating on Autopilot remains under investigation, a CHP spokesman said.

The second crash happened about 1.09am on July 24 on Interstate 15 near Draper, Utah. A Tesla Model 3 sedan was behind a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, also in an HOV lane.

“The driver of the Tesla did not see the motorcyclist and collided with the back of the motorcycle, which threw the rider from the bike,” the Utah Department of Public Safety said in a statement.

The rider, identified as Landon Embry, 34, of Orem, Utah, died at the scene. The Tesla driver told authorities that he had the vehicle's Autopilot setting on, the statement said.

Michael Brooks, acting executive director of the non-profit Centre for Auto Safety, called on the NHTSA to recall Tesla's Autopilot because it is not recognising motorcyclists, emergency vehicles or pedestrians.

“It's pretty clear to me, and it should be to a lot of Tesla owners by now, this stuff isn't working properly and it's not going to live up to the expectations, and it is putting innocent people in danger on the roads,” Mr Brooks said.

Since 2016, the NHTSA has sent teams to 39 crashes in which automated driving systems are suspected of being in use, according to agency documents. Of those, 30 involved Teslas, including crashes that caused 19 deaths.

Mr Brooks criticised the agency for continuing to investigate but not taking action.

“What are they doing while these crashes continue to occur?” he said. “Drivers are being lured into thinking this protects them and others on the roads, and it's just not working.”

Tesla chief executive Elon Musk has eliminated use of radar from its systems and relies solely on cameras and computer memory.

Mr Brooks and other safety advocates said the lack of radar hurts vision in the darkness.

Comment was sought from Tesla, which has disbanded its media relations department.

Tesla has said that Autopilot and Full Self-Driving cannot drive themselves, and that drivers should be ready to intervene at all times.

The Los Angeles Times, meanwhile, on Friday reported that California's Department of Motor Vehicles has accused Tesla of false advertising in its promotion of Autopilot and Full Self-Driving.

The accusations came in complaints filed with the state's Office of Administrative Hearings on July 28, the Times reported.

In a June interview, new NHTSA administrator Steven Cliff said the agency is intensifying efforts to understand risks posed by automated vehicles so it can decide what regulations may be necessary to protect drivers, passengers and pedestrians.

There are no federal regulations that directly cover either self-driving vehicles or those with partially automated driver-assist systems such as Autopilot.

The agency also said the technology holds great promise of reducing traffic crashes.

The NHTSA also has ordered all carmakers and technology companies with automated driving systems to report all crashes. The agency released the first batch of data in June showing that nearly 400 crashes were reported over a 10-month period, including 273 with Teslas.

But it cautioned against making comparisons, saying that Tesla's telematics allow it to gather data in real time, much faster than other companies.

Updated: August 06, 2022, 2:30 PM