U.S. safety officials are alarmed by Tesla’s decision to let certain drivers use its Autopilot driver-assist system for prolonged periods without requiring them to place their hands on the wheel.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has asked Tesla to provide statistics regarding the number of vehicles that have received a software update enabling such capability. In a July 26 letter to Tesla, published on the agency’s website on August 30, acting chief counsel John Donaldson expressed concern that the newly added feature has sparked interest as more drivers try to activate it now that the public is aware of its existence.
Furthermore, the government is investigating Autopilot after it struck motorcycles, tractor-trailers, and emergency vehicles parked on highways. Since 2016, it has dispatched investigators to 35 Tesla crashes that may have involved partially autonomous driving systems. The formal investigation was launched in 2021, and 17 fatalities have been confirmed.
According to Tesla, Autopilot and a more advanced “Full Self-Driving” systems can’t drive themselves; drivers must always be prepared to take over. However, the special order tells Tesla to describe changes in the software update that reduce or eliminate instances where Autopilot tells drivers to apply pressure on the steering wheel, “including the amount of time that Autopilot is allowed to operate without prompting torque, and any warnings or chimes that are presented to the driver.”
In a letter addressed to Tesla Senior Legal Director Dinna Eskin, the Texas-based company must explain why it deployed the software upgrade and how it justifies which customers received it. Additionally, it looks for information on collisions and near-collisions involving vehicles that have the software update.
By August 25, a Tesla executive must reply to the letter under oath; otherwise, the agency will send the case to the Justice Department, which may seek a maximum fine of almost $131 million.