US car safety regulators have opened a formal safety probe into Tesla’s Autopilot driver assistance system used in over three quarters of a million vehicles, after a string of crashes involving parked emergency vehicles.
Since January 2018, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says it has identified 11 crashes in which Tesla models “have encountered first responder scenes and subsequently struck one or more vehicles involved with those scenes.”
Tesla shares fell 5 per cent on the news.
After investigating, NHTSA could opt to take no action, or it could demand a recall, which might effectively impose limits on how, when and where Autopilot operates.
Any restrictions could narrow the competitive gap between Tesla’s system and similar advanced driver assistance systems offered by established automakers.
The auto safety agency said it had reports of 17 injuries and one death in those crashes, including the December 2019 crash of a Tesla Model 3 that left a passenger dead after the vehicle collided with a parked fire truck in Indiana.
The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Chief Executive Elon Musk has repeatedly defended Autopilot and in April tweeted that “Tesla with Autopilot engaged now approaching 10 times lower chance of accident than average vehicle.”
NHTSA said the 11 crashes included four this year, including a July 10 crash in San Diego, and it had opened a preliminary evaluation of Autopilot in 765,000 2014-2021 Tesla Models Y, X, S, and 3.
The crashes involved vehicles “all confirmed to have been engaged in either Autopilot or Traffic Aware Cruise Control,” NHTSA said.
Most of the 11 crashes took place after dark and crash scenes included measures like emergency vehicle lights, flares or road cones, they said.
Musk tweeted last month Tesla’s advanced camera-only driver assistance system, known as “Tesla Vision,” will soon “capture turn signals, hazards, ambulance/police lights & even hand gestures.”
NHTSA said its investigation will assess technologies “used to monitor, assist, and enforce the driver’s engagement” with driving when using Autopilot.
Before NHTSA could demand a recall, it must first decide to upgrade an investigation into an engineering analysis. The two-step investigative process often takes a year or more.