By on October 3, 2019

For some strange reason, U.S. road safety regulators are showing an interest in a Tesla feature that allows driverless vehicles to navigate tight, crowded public spaces on their own — one Tesla admits “may not detect all obstacles.”

Clearly, by investigating reports of Tesla’s Smart Summon feature going awry, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is standing in the way of progress, or so some brand diehards would have you believe. To others, the agency’s scrutiny is overdue.

The NHTSA announced it was poring into reports of Smart Summon fails on Wednesday evening, nearly a week after Tesla’s latest software update delivered the feature to owners who opted for the Full Self Driving package at purchase time.

While Tesla CEO Elon Musk claims owners used the feature over half a million times within a few days, it’s the less-successful parking lot forays that the NHTSA’s worried about.

Designed to be used as a valet service in private parking lots and driveways, Smart Summon navigates the Tesla at low speeds to the owner’s location, with the car using the owner’s phone as a homing beacon. Users are warned to use the feature when no more than 200 feet from the car, and only when the vehicle is within their line of sight. As we showed you Saturday, those early experiments were not without drama.

One Model 3 nearly collided with an Acura MDX in a crowded parking lot, only coming to a halt after the owner took his finger off the phone app’s summon button. Another hit a garage wall in a video uploaded by the owner, while one owner claims their Tesla made contact with a vehicle that was in the process of backing up. Yet another video showed a Tesla that was unable to differentiate asphalt from grass.

As reported by Reuters, the NHTSA claims it “is aware of reports related to Tesla’s Summon feature. We are in ongoing contact with the company and we continue to gather information. Safety is NHTSA’s top priority and the agency will not hesitate to act if it finds evidence of a safety-related defect.”

Tesla issued the feature with appropriate warnings about owner vigilance and proper use, but the mere fact the feature exists — and could fall into the hands of a not-so-vigilant owner — is legitimate cause for concern. Just because the automaker tells users to be “especially careful around quick moving people, bicycles and cars” does not mean people will. Were a collision to happen, there’d be no one behind the wheel. Who’s at fault — the user, or the company behind the self-driving parking lot denizen?

You can be sure lawyers are salivating at the thought of seeking a pound of flesh from Tesla.

[Image: Tesla]

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11 Comments on “Smart Summon a Smart Idea? The NHTSA Wants to Know...”

  • avatar

    Obviously nobody at TTAC got the memo from /r/teslamotors that this isn’t a “Model 3.” It’s an “M3.” And of course ask any Millennial/Gen Z “enthusiast” and they’ll tell you it’s the best car on the market.

    In the meantime, we all continue to live in a world where we act as live beta testers for Elon’s latest software rollouts. Now, you don’t even have to drive a Tesla to participate. You just have to be on the public roads (possibly the sidewalks) and Elon’s software will find you.

  • avatar
    Thomas Kreutzer

    This is sort of the holy grail of self-driving technology isn’t it? – Well that and getting nasty in the back seat on the way to Las Vegas…

    It’s one of the things that have to get sorted and Tesla is pushing the envelope. It’s just not quite ready for prime time. When it finally is ready, it’s going to be a huge deal.

  • avatar
    Master Baiter

    Not to defend or endorse Tesla’s smart-summon feature, but the video with the MDX appeared to be staged. There are a lot of Tesla short-sellers in the market who are not above posting fake videos meant to drive down the stock price.

    • 0 avatar

      I’ve heard this excuse about negative AutoPilot videos a lot, and never actually seen any evidence of it. (Because it would put said short-sellers in deep trouble with the SEC.)

      And Tesla certainly has plenty of 100% obvious problems as a company that somebody scratching the paint on some Acura is not going to make a significant difference.

  • avatar

    There’s several reasons private equity is buying up all the collision repair outfits. This is one of them.
    Some day the technology will get sorted out.
    But for now it’s gonna be a body shop bull market.

  • avatar

    > Were a collision to happen, there’d be no one behind the wheel. Who’s at fault — the user, or the company behind the self-driving parking lot denizen?

    Tesla made it clear that the owner/user is responsible, and that’s part of why s/he needs to have the car and its surroundings in sight and keep pressing the button on the phone. You’re still driving the car, just from outside rather than inside the car

  • avatar

    So these entitled dweebs can’t walk 200 ft to get in their car?

  • avatar
    Art Vandelay

    Those videos look more like an Alpha test…that stuff isn’t even Beta test level.

  • avatar
    R Henry

    RE: The lede photo.

    Viewing the image of a dashboard without gauges, buttons, or dials prompts me to feel an involuntary nostalgic flashback to the days when cars were not mobile computer terminals.

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