NHTSA Resumes Inquisition of Tesla Autopilot

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has been keeping tabs on Tesla’s Autopilot for years, sometimes giving crashes involving the system a bit more attention than they otherwise would have. But the extra scrutiny seemed to dissipate as practically every automaker on the planet introduced their own advanced driving suites and Telsa seemed to preemptively adhere to fast-approaching government regulations (and industry norm) by introducing driver-monitoring cameras.

On Friday, the NHTSA returned to business as usual and announced it had opened a preliminary evaluation of Autopilot to determine if there were any problems with the system. The agency has claimed it received at least 11 verifiable crash reports since 2018 where a Tesla product struck at least one vehicle that was already at the scene of an accident. It’s sort of a weird metric but allegedly worthy of the NHTSA wanting to look into every model the company produced between 2014 and 2021. However, actually reading the report makes it sound like the agency is more preoccupied with how Tesla’s system engaged with drivers, rather than establishing the true effectiveness of Autopilot as a system.

From the report:

Most incidents took place after dark and the crash scenes encountered included scene control measures such as first responder vehicle lights, flares, an illuminated arrow board, and road cones. The involved subject vehicles were all confirmed to have been engaged in either Autopilot or Traffic Aware Cruise Control during the approach to the crashes.

Autopilot is an Advanced Driver Assistance System (ADAS) in which the vehicle maintains its speed and lane centering when engaged within its Operational Design Domain (ODD). With the ADAS active, the driver still holds primary responsibility for Object and Event Detection and Response (OEDR), e.g., identification of obstacles in the roadway or adverse maneuvers by neighboring vehicles during the Dynamic Driving Task (DDT).

As a result, the Office of Defects Investigation says it has started investigating Autopilot (SAE Level 2) equipped to all Tesla models (S, X, 3, and Y) manufactured between 2014 and 2021. The goal will be to assess the associated “technologies and methods used to monitor, assist, and enforce the driver’s engagement with the dynamic driving task during Autopilot operation.”

While it also plans to look into the general effectiveness of Autopilot but it’s written into the report almost as an afterthought, making the whole thing a bit curious. The government granted manufacturers quite a bit of leeway in terms of where and how they tested autonomous vehicles for years, with the NHTSA doing little to buck the trend. Retroactively looking into Tesla vehicles for not being sufficiently obnoxious to convince operators not to use Autopilot seems genuinely stupid. Most forms of ADAS encourage drivers to check out of the driving experience, encouraging complacency behind the wheel.

That’s not really a defense on behalf of Tesla either. Your author routinely bashed the company for rolling out Autopilot irresponsibly and there are more than enough examples of drivers doing something truly stupid to help that case. But the government already allowed it to sell those vehicles and hasn’t done nearly as much to chide other manufacturers who are offering similar systems that also yield questionable efficacy. Tesla simply got there first, had better (albeit questionable) marketing, offered more features, and took all the early praise.

The NHTSA frequently goes out of its way to remind people that no commercially available vehicles are capable of driving themselves while simultaneously giving the go-ahead to automakers who stop just short of making the absolute counterclaim. Seeing the agency suddenly launch a preliminary investigation that could ultimately lead to a recall campaign of 765,000 vehicles makes it seem like it has a vendetta against Tesla or a desperate need to look competent. Why not have a full assessment of literally every vehicle sold with features that qualify as SAE Level 2 rather than single out the highest-profile manufacturer selling the least amount of cars?

Probably because that would require a lot more work and gum up the works for legacy automakers that have better relationships with government entities. Let’s not forget that Tesla was the only domestic automaker deemed ineligible for the latest EV subsidies on account of its opposition to unionization and has a history of butting heads with regulators and the State of California. But it would be irresponsible for me to claim that’s the agency’s de facto reasoning, rather than a strong hunch.

The NHTSA has at least started requiring automakers to report crashes where advanced driving systems were engaged during or immediately before the crash. That should eventually help build a foundation of data to help make more informed decisions moving ahead. But the recent focus on driver monitoring remains unsettling, particularly as we’ve seen bizarre inclusions in unrelated bills attempting to mandate enhanced government surveillance of vehicle occupants. If the NHTSA was serious about any of this, it would take a look at how oversized central displays are encouraging distracted driving and put some additional effort behind its generalized ADAS assessments.

Tesla has plenty of problems and frequently makes decisions that run counter to good taste. Autopilot may even have serious issues that need to be addressed. But if other manufacturers aren’t subjected to the same level of scrutiny, then the NHTSA hasn’t done its job. There are millions of less-expensive vehicles equipped with similar systems, some I’ve personally seen fail in ways that could have easily resulted in an accident. Frankly, I would argue most ADAS fail to work as advertised and encourage complacency to a potentially dangerous degree. However, they don’t make the headlines or end up on the receiving end of enhanced regulatory pressure.

Either these systems work well and should be retained or they don’t and must be removed — the badge on the front of the car should be irrelevant. Nobody has done a great job with autonomy and the solutions being presented by regulators are truly unsavory, we should all be tired of pretending otherwise.

[Image: Virrage Images/Shutterstock]

Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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3 of 45 comments
  • DenverMike DenverMike on Aug 18, 2021

    Perception is everything in this mess. Or ignorance and false/misinformation. That's about impossible to fix. But fixing/correcting the systems is just flipping a switch.

  • ToolGuy ToolGuy on Aug 23, 2021

    For reference, here is the body count we are talking about: https://www.tesladeaths.com/ Look at the "Autopilot claimed" and "Verified Tesla Autopilot Death" columns to the right. Totals are provided for USA at the bottom (currently 13 claimed; 6 verified). [None for Canada that I see - what is it with Americans??] Extra credit: Plot the numbers in the two columns over time (we have roughly 8 years of data); then also plot the total number of Tesla vehicles in operation over the same timeframe (total Tesla vehicle miles would be even better, if you can find it). Are we seeing the problems with Autopilot increasing at an increasing rate, or are we seeing something else?

    • Mcs Mcs on Aug 23, 2021

      There have been over a million Teslas produced, so there are a lot of vehicle miles being racked up. Sure, most of those miles are p[probably without autopilot, but they count since those are miles driven where owners know to act responsibly and not use it when not appropriate. Compare it to the body count or deaths per mile driven of Ford Fiestas, Hyundai Accents, Chevy Sonics, or even Ford Mustangs. The Ford Mustang's characteristics are features that can be abused, so why shouldn't it be banned. Small and cheap is a feature too. What's the body count there?

  • Lou_BC Ironic, the Honda Ridgeline, a truck that every truck guy loves to hate is in 6th place.
  • 28-Cars-Later I keep forgetting I own it, but the space look on the ext cab reminds me of my 'Yota pickup of the same model year. I'm pretty sure there is some vintage of Hilux which features the same looking ext cab window (maybe '88?) its a shame these things are mostly gone and when available are $1,000,000,000 [INSERT CURRENT CURRENCY].
  • Sayahh Imagine if Ford had Toyota design and build a Mustang engine. It will last over 300k miles! (Skip turbo and make it naturally aspirated.) Maybe Yamaha will help tune it...
  • Sobhuza Trooper Isuzu's crime was to build some damn good trucks.Shame on them.
  • El scotto Listen, unless you were Lord Headly-Stempmoor or such when you got off the off the boat, boot in Canada, you got the short end of the stick. People got on the boat, these days a plane, to escape famine, becoming cannon fodder in yet another stupid war, or the government thought it was A-OK to let soldiers kill you. Juneteenth is just a way to right one of the more bad ideas in the American experiment. Instead we have commenters who were buying tater chips and diet soda at Wal-Mart and got all butt-hurt because they heard someone who wasn't speaking English. I'm going to go fix a couple of frankfurters with salsa and guacamole and wash them down with a lager or three