NHTSA Gives Tesla Until October to Respond to Autopilot Allegations
Official Notification to Tesla
Just this evening, news broke out with the release of a copy of a letter sent by e-mail to Ed Gates---Tesla’s Director of Field Quality---informing him that “…the Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has opened a Preliminary Evaluation (PE21-020) to investigate crashes involving first responder scenes and vehicles manufactured by Tesla, Inc. (Tesla) that were operating in either Autopilot or Traffic Aware Cruise Control leading up to the incident, and to request certain information.”
This letter is the latest step taken by the NHTSA after it was revealed last month that federal vehicle safety regulators are launching a formal investigation into Tesla and its Autopilot system based on a series of fatal crashes that have left at least 17 people injured and 1 dead. More to the point, of especial concern are 12 crashes (to date) associating Tesla vehicles under Autopilot control in accidents during encounters with emergency vehicles.
Here is a video news clip from last August about the Tesla Autopilot probe:
What the NHTSA Wants and Why
According to the breaking news stories, the NHTSA wants the requested information from Tesla so as to determine whether Tesla’s Autopilot caused or contributed to crashes with first responder vehicles.
The concern is that because the crashes took place after dark and involved crash or construction scenes with flashing emergency lights, that the Autopilot system sensors and software may have difficulties in correctly interpreting particular driving situations and thereby could be putting the public at risk.
In just one small section of the letter, the NHTSA wants info that describes…Tesla’s strategies for detecting and responding to the presence of first responder / law enforcement vehicles and incident scene management tactics whether in or out of the roadway during subject system operation in the subject vehicles. To Include:
1. Incident scene detection (particularly flashing lights, road flares, cones / barrels, reflectorized vests on personnel, vehicles parked at an angle “fend-off” position”).
2. Explain the effects of low light conditions on these strategies.
3. List subject system behaviors (e.g., driver warnings, control interventions).
However, the above is just a small amount of what the NHTSA wants.
According to CNBC News, Phil Koopman, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, has characterized NHTSA’s data request as “really sweeping” due to that the request includes Tesla’s entire Autopilot-equipped fleet, encompassing cars, software and hardware Tesla sold from 2014 to 2021.
“This is an incredibly detailed request for huge amounts of data. But it is exactly the type of information that would be needed to dig in to whether Tesla vehicles are acceptably safe,” stated professor Koopman.
In fact, in the letter of notification, a single paragraph consisting of 357 words lists practically every imaginable form of communication known to man short of Sanskrit scratched into a clay tablet is requested by the NHTSA from Tesla associated with or linked to Autopilot and its development. It is that extensive.
What This Could Mean for Tesla
News sources report that the NHTSA has the authority to mandate a recall if it determines---not just whether the Autopilot system is unsafe---but if any of the models, systems, or components within Tesla’s vehicles possess a single safety defect.
If this is true, then Tesla could be in trouble. In the past there have been noted problems with Autopilot that include a headlight high beam issue; and possible Autopilot confusion with vehicles off to the side of the road partially obstructing a lane.
However, based on the scope of the requested material, Tesla might not be physically able to provide everything requested---it’s just that massive. Plus, of course, there is the lawyer factor which is sure to delay the investigation for years, let alone months to come. The October 22nd deadline is likely just a formality in reality.
A copy of the letter can be found online from the NHTSA to Tesla here.
We Would like to Hear Your Opinion
Take a look at the letter and let us know what you think in the comments section below about the level of requests made by the NHTSA.
Timothy Boyer is Torque News automotive reporter based in Cincinnati. Experienced with early car restorations, he regularly restores older vehicles with engine modifications for improved performance. Follow Tim on Twitter at @TimBoyerWrites for daily automotive-related news.