Tesla Autopilot investigation upgraded to 'engineering analysis': NHTSA

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After opening an investigation to assess the performance of Tesla's Autopilot system in August 2021, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has upgraded its probe to an engineering analysis. 

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According to the regulator, the engineering analysis will evaluate additional data sets, perform vehicle evaluations, and "explore the degree to which Autopilot and associated Tesla systems may exacerbate human factors or behavioral safety risks by undermining the effectiveness of the driver’s supervision."

An engineering analysis is the final stage of an investigation, and in most cases NHTSA decides within a year if there should be a recall or the probe should be closed. The probe now covers an estimated 830,000 vehicles, which includes all Y, S, X and 3 vehicle models sold since 2014.

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The NHTSA's preliminary investigation was motivated by "an accumulation of crashes in which Tesla vehicles, operating with Autopilot engaged, struck stationary in-road or roadside first responder vehicles tending to pre-existing collision scenes," according to a document posted to its website. 

Tesla

It also evaluated similar circumstance crashes of Teslas operating with Autopilot engaged, as well as the technologies and methods used to monitor, assist and enforce the driver’s engagement during Autopilot operation. 

The remains of a Tesla vehicle are seen after it crashed in The Woodlands, Texas, April 17, 2021. (Scott J. Engle via Reuters / Reuters)

The preliminary investigation looked into 16 incidents of Teslas crashing into first responder and road maintenance vehicles, which resulted in a total of 15 injuries and one death. 

A forward collision warning was activated immediately prior to impact in a majority of the incidents and subsequent automatic emergency braking intervened in approximately half of the collisions. On average, Autopilot aborted vehicle control less than one second prior to the first impact.

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In addition, the agency looked at 191 crashes not limited to first responder scenes, but removed 85 of them because of external factors, such as the actions of other vehicles, or not enough information to support a definitive assessment. 

Of the remaining 106 crashes, approximately half occurred due to drivers either not intervening when needed or intervening through "ineffectual control inputs." In 37 of the 106 crashes, a driver's hands were on the steering wheel in the last second prior to the collision. 

A quarter of the 106 crashes appeared to relate to running Autopilot in areas where it has limitations, or in conditions that can interfere with its operation, such as roadways other than limited access highways, or low traction or visibility environments, such as rain, snow or ice. 

"A driver’s use or misuse of vehicle components, or operation of a vehicle in an unintended manner, does not necessarily preclude a system defect," the NHTSA emphasized. 

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Though Tesla put out an over-the-air software update for Autopilot last fall to improve camera detection of emergency vehicle lights in low-light conditions, the NHTSA has questioned why the company did not issue a recall to address the problem. 

The National Safety Transportation Board, which also has investigated some Tesla crashes dating to 2016, has recommended that the NHTSA and Tesla limit Autopilot use to areas where it can safety operate. It also has recommended that the NHTSA require Tesla to have a better system to make sure drivers are paying attention, though the agency has yet to act on the recommendations. The NTSB can only make recommendations to other federal agencies.

A spokesperson for Tesla, which has dissolved its public relations department, did not immediately return FOX Business' request for comment. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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