U.S. auto safety regulators launched an investigation into Tesla’s partially self-driving car system after nearly a dozen reports of the company’s vehicles crashing into cars at the scenes of incidents involving emergency responders.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opened the probe Friday into Tesla’s Autopilot, which steers, brakes, and accelerates the vehicle on most roads with lanes.
Though the system can drive the vehicle on its own in many circumstances, drivers are supposed to keep their hands on the wheel in case they need to take over when Autopilot encounters a situation that’s too complex for it to handle on its own.
The National Transportation Safety Board and NHTSA have investigated Autopilot multiple times, including after a crash in 2016 that killed a man in Florida who authorities said had too much confidence in the system’s capabilities.
Safety watchdogs have criticized Tesla for exaggerating Autopilot’s functions, but Tesla CEO Elon Musk argued that the system is safer than human drivers.
In May, a deadly crash in Texas involving an Autopilot vehicle called attention to the fact that drivers can trick Autopilot into thinking someone’s behind the wheel even if no one is.
Tesla owners have posted photos to YouTube showing themselves abusing the technology by riding in the back seat while the vehicle drives itself.
Soon after the Texas incident, Tesla announced it was activating cameras to monitor whether drivers are paying attention to the road while using Autopilot.
In the newest probe, NHTSA investigators identified 11 crashes since January 2018 “in which Tesla models of various configurations have encountered first responder scenes and subsequently struck one or more vehicles involved with those scenes,” according to an Office of Defects Investigation document. “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.”
The incidents occurred on Tesla vehicles from the model years 2014 through 2021. Tesla does not attach model years to its vehicles, but federal authorities do.
“The investigation will assess the technologies and methods used to monitor, assist, and enforce the driver’s engagement with the dynamic driving task during Autopilot operation,” investigators said.
Tesla did not respond to a request seeking comment. The company eliminated its media relations department in the past year.
The incidents involving emergency responders occurred in San Diego; Miami; Lansing, Michigan; Montgomery County, Texas; Charlotte, North Carolina; Cochise County, Arizona; West Bridgewater, Massachusetts; Cloverdale, Indiana; Norwalk, Connecticut; Laguna Beach, California; and Culver City, California.