U.S. Vehicle Safety Regulators Investigate Advanced Driver Assistance System Tesla Known as autopilot after a series of accidents that caused casualties.
The investigation by the National Highway Safety Agency (NHTSA) released on Monday is the latest sign that U.S. authorities are beginning to look more closely at driver assistance technologies after previously giving companies a free hand.
The NHTSA said it had identified 11 crashes since early 2018 in which a Tesla car that used the autopilot feature collided with one or more cars in such a serious accident that emergency forces were called to it.
Four of the accidents investigating at NHTSA occurred this year and most occurred during the hours of darkness, the director said. In one such accident in March, a Tesla Y model driver was traveling with an autopilot powered before the car got into a police car that stopped on the side of a highway in Lansing, Michigan that was there to investigate another accident, Michigan State Police said. Police said the vehicle was standing on the side of the road with flashing emergency lights.
NHTSA is testing the autopilot system on 765,000 Tesla cars from 2014 to 2021. The system is available on cars manufactured in late 2014 or later, according to Tesla’s website. Investigations of this kind can lead to recall, a call to return the cars to the company, but do not always come to that.
Advanced driving assistance systems are not subject to strict U.S. oversight. NHTSA has recently begun requiring companies to routinely report crashes involving this type of feature.
Tesla, whose shares fell more than 4 percent on Monday, did not respond to requests for comment. The electric car company has long argued that driving with the autopilot feature enabled is safer than driving without it.
The autopilot is designed to assist drivers in tasks like steering and keeping distance from other vehicles on the road. Tesla instructs drivers using the system to pay attention to the road and hold the steering wheel with both hands.
However, the system has drawn criticism, for example because of the way some drivers take advantage of the technology and violate the safety instructions for operating the vehicle without hands on the steering wheel. Some feature critics further say that the nickname ‘autopilot’ may endanger drivers by giving them an excessive sense of system capabilities.
At least 25 accidents will be investigated
NHTSA said the investigation would examine how the company monitors driver involvement and how the system detects obstacles along the way. The agency has opened at least 25 investigations into accidents it believes are related to Tesla’s advanced driver assistance system.
Sean Kane, president of Road Safety Research and Strategy Ltd., welcomed the NHTSA’s investigation into the autopilot but said the government agency should have stricter rules on the issue first.
“It is a retroactive remedy that could have been treated from the beginning and prevented,” he said.
Tesla uses examples of different traffic scenarios to teach its driver assistance technology and determine the desired course of action.
The autopilot system has evolved over time and for a long time relied on a combination of cameras, radar and other sensors. However, a few months ago, the company removed the 3 and Y models radar manufactured for the North American market.
Engineering professor Marie “Missy” Cummings of Duke University said both cameras and radar may have trouble identifying standing police vehicles or other items like cones. Radars may have difficulty distinguishing between non-moving objects, while cameras can help vehicles detect obstacles only if the system is trained to detect that particular scenario, she said. Emergency vehicles do not always behave consistently – they sometimes stop and block part of the lane – and this may make it difficult for driver assistance systems to respond appropriately.
“That’s why emergencies are so problematic,” Cummings said. “The visual presentation is never similar.”
Incorrect measurement of the radar
Andrei Karpati, senior director of artificial intelligence at Tesla, recently spoke about some of these challenges while discussing the company’s technology at an industry conference.
“The problem with radar is that once in a while, randomly, it will give you an incorrect measurement, and you will not know when it happens,” he said in June.
The recent action by the NHTSA adds to the increased regulatory scrutiny that Tesla has faced in recent months.
Earlier this year, two U.S. senators – Democrats Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Edward Marky of Massachusetts – urged the NHTSA to develop recommendations for improving driver assistance systems such as Tesla’s autopilot system. Senators spoke on the issue after the fatal accident in Texas, though since another federal safety agency investigating accidents, the National Road Safety Board, has questioned whether the autopilot system was related to that accident.
Senators Blumenthal and Markie called on the NHTSA to conduct the investigation quickly, thoroughly and transparently.
The investigation “should enter the agency’s recommendations for improvements the company needs to implement in order to improve auto-driving safety and driver assistance technology and prevent future accidents,” senators said in a joint statement Monday.
Jennifer Homendi, director of the National Road Safety Board, said the NHTSA investigation is a step in the right direction.
“As we navigate the new world of advanced driving assistance systems, it’s important for NHTSA to have insights into what these vehicles can and cannot do,” she said in a statement. The board, which has no regulatory authority over automakers, has urged the NHTSA to tighten oversight of advanced driving assistance systems.
Tesla recently recalled more than 285,000 cars in China to address a safety issue related to their cruise control system (a system for maintaining a constant driving speed).
China’s state market regulation has announced that Tesla’s cruise control system may be inadvertently turned on, which could lead to a sudden acceleration. Most of the vehicles affected by the recall were manufactured at Tesla’s plant in Shanghai and the software repair can be done remotely. Tesla apologized to car owners regarding the recall and announced that it would continue to improve safety measures in accordance with national requirements.
In the US, Tesla earlier this year agreed to recall about 135,000 S and X models on touchscreen faults.