Tesla called on to explain Autopilot function

Tesla has been asked by the US government’s road safety agency to share detailed information about how its Autopilot system detects and responds to emergency vehicles parked on roads.

Tesla Autopilot provides a range of features that the company says helps prevent accidents caused by driver negligence and fatigue. It includes cruise control, lane centring and changes, and parking. Media reports of fatal accidents associated with drivers handing full control over to Tesla Autopilot has prompted the company to emphasise that the driver must remain in control of the car while it is operating in Autopilot mode.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has carried out a number of investigations into crashes on Autopilot since 2018. Last month, a Tesla driving on Autopilot collided with a parked Florida Highway Patrol vehicle in Orlando.

Now, the NHTSA has requested details of how the system works, via an 11-page letter sent to the automaker. Specifically, the agency is interested in:

  • How Autopilot recognises a crash scene (e.g. from the presence of flashing lights, hi-vis clothing and road flares).
  • Whether this works acceptably well under low-light conditions.
  • What action the cars take if emergency vehicles are present.
  • How a Tesla car presents a warning to the driver.

The agency aims to find out how it can ensure that drivers are paying attention and not abusing Autopilot, following multiple accidents involving intoxicated or distracted drivers. It also asks for information about Tesla’s policies and procedures for testing Autopilot updates before they are released to Tesla owners.

Tesla beta-tests its systems using customers to gather real-world data while they are driving. The request includes “the extent of field testing or vehicle validation miles required prior to the release of such a system or feature”.

The NHTSA’s letter is an element of a wider investigation into how Autopilot behaves when emergency vehicles are parked while crews handle crashes or other hazards. The investigation covers an estimated 765,000 vehicles, with models spanning 2014 to 2021.

The agency says it could fine Tesla more than $114m (£83m) should it fail to comply. It has until October 22 to respond to the request for information or seek an extension.

Meanwhile, the National Transportation Safety Board, which has also overseen Tesla investigations, has recommended that the NHTSA and Tesla limit Autopilot’s use to areas where it can be certain it can safely operate. It has also recommended that the NHTSA requires Tesla to improve Autopilot and add features to ensure drivers retain attention. However, the board has no enforcement powers and can only make recommendations. So far, the NHTSA has not taken these actions.

Last month, Consumer Reports expressed concern that Autopilot lacks sufficient safety features. It announced plans to independently test the latest software upgrade, FSD beta 9, following the appearance of video footage of concerning behaviour by Teslas running on the software, including scraping against bushes and heading towards parked cars.

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