Twist: NHTSA Tesla Autopilot Probe Now Includes Other Automakers

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has been doing a deep dive into Tesla’s Autopilot to determine if 765,000 vehicles from the 2014 model year onward are fit to be on the road. We’ve covered it on numerous occasions, with your author often making a plea for regulators not to harp on one company when the entire industry has been slinging advanced driving aids and distracting infotainment displays for years.

Apparently someone at the NHTSA either heard the blathering, or was at least of a similar mind, because the organization has expanded its investigation to include roughly a dozen other automakers.

On Monday, letters were issued to major manufacturers — reportedly including BMW, Honda, Toyota, and Ford Motor Co. — requesting a “comparative analysis amongst production vehicles equipped with the ability to control both steering and braking/accelerating simultaneously under some circumstances.”

Bloomberg was the first to learn of the regulatory notices and stated that they included comprehensive documentation on how driver-assistance features work for each company, as well as how they know when and if a system was engaged in the event of an accident. Since the Tesla probe originally started by investigating vehicle crashes in the presence of rescue and law-enforcement vehicles, the NHTSA also wants to know how various systems handle their presence. Automakers were asked by regulators to respond no later than November 17th, 2021.

This is probably something the Department of Transportation should have been looking into years earlier, rather than allowing the industry to implement features that debatably went onto the market unproven. Now we’re in a situation where driving aids have become the norm and regulators are just starting to get serious about looking into some of the resulting complications. But it’s difficult to say what’s right when regulations often have unintended consequences and rarely seem to take the larger picture into account.

It’s not difficult to imagine a scenario where the NHTSA wants all manufacturers to network all vehicles with emergency responders to prevent future incidents where an automobile goes haywire near some flashing lights and road flares. While that would almost assuredly result in a technical violation of the Fourth Amendment, counties lacking such protections have already implemented traffic enforcement centers (e.g. China) that track networked vehicles in real time and individual automakers have data hubs on U.S. soil doing roughly the same thing.

But that’s just one possible scenario.

Regulators could just as easily attempt to establish a set of rules relating to how, when, and where these systems can be operated. A certification and testing protocol could also be implemented to ensure their effectiveness or automakers might be forbade from implementing certain functions entirely. Nobody but bureaucrats hold any love for red tape, and it’s bound to result costly recall campaigns. However doing nothing might leave millions of vehicles on the road with potentially hazardous safety and convenience packages and I haven’t the faintest idea whether that’s going to be the best or absolute worst solution to this problem. There are several issues here begging to be addressed (safety, privacy, a lack of standardization, increased costs, manufacturing complexities, etc.) but so many regulatory actions turn out to be counter productive that it makes one hesitant to endorse anything.

As pickles go, this one is taking up the whole damn jar — thanks partially to regulators dragging their feet and out-of-touch legislators having next to no idea how any of these systems worked. Rather than examining things seriously six or seven years ago and attempting to establish a competent regulatory framework that could be updated as new technologies cropped up, the government now has to play catchup and plot a course of action while it’s still learning how these systems function.

[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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  • Mustangfast Mustangfast on Sep 14, 2021

    Maybe I’m blissfully unaware but I don’t recall hearing of anyone else’s systems having problems. I’d agree part of the semantics problem is people over rely on it based on how it is named. The other systems could be brought in to figure out why Tesla is so unique with these incidents

    • DenverMike DenverMike on Sep 14, 2021

      Other automakers (engineers) probably know the exact issue with "Autopilot", or multiple issues. And they may not want to say! I'm sure they're thinking 'screw' Tesla. And the FTC.

  • Vulpine Vulpine on Sep 16, 2021

    Honestly, there's only one reliable solution: All vehicles need the ability to communicate with each other to signal where they are and what they're doing. Add to this an ability to communicate directly with city traffic management computers and you could effectively eliminate the vast majority of traffic jams and incidents due to outside influences such as crashes, construction, power outages, etc. Give emergency vehicles a priority signal and many of these 'roadside incidents' would be completely eliminated.

    • Mcs Mcs on Sep 16, 2021

      @vulpine: You're right. We have ADS-B in aviation. It would be great to have something similar in vehicles. Even expand it to cell phones, pet collars, and tags/wristbands for kids. Not a perfect system, but much better than nothing.

  • Bob65688581 We bought zillions of German cars, despite knowing about WWII slave labor. Refusing to buy something for ideological reasons is foolish.Both the US and the EU have imposed tariffs, so the playing field is level. I'll buy the best price/quality, regardless of nationality.Another interesting question would be "Would you buy one of the many new European moderate-price EVs?" but of course they aren't sold here.Third interesting question: "Why won't Stellantis sell its best products in America?"
  • Freshblather No. Worried there will be malicious executable code built into the cars motherboard that could disable the Chinese cars in the event of hostilities between the west and China.
  • Bd2 Absolutely not - do not want to support a fascist, totalitarian regime.
  • SCE to AUX The original Capri was beautiful. The abomination from the 90s was no Capri, and neither is this.It looks good, but too similar to a Polestar. And what's with the whacked price?
  • Rover Sig Absolutely not. Ever.
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