Officials said in a tweet that a Tesla car running in the car’s driver assistance system known as Autopilot crashed into a police car on March 17, 2021 in Michigan.
Michigan State Police
The Federal Vehicle Safety Authority asked Tesla to explain why it did not initiate a recall when it pushed a safety-related software update for customers in September.
The update enabled Tesla cars to better detect emergency vehicle lights in low-light conditions, according to a letter from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to Tesla posted on the government agency’s website on Wednesday.
Tesla’s “Emergency Light Detection Update” was delivered via an over-the-air software update to customer cars a few weeks after NHTSA began an investigation into potential safety flaws using the Tesla Autopilot, the company’s standard driver assistance package.
Tesla also sells a premium version of its driver assistance system under the brand name FSD, or fully self-driving, for $10,000 up front or $199 a month. None of Tesla’s systems make their cars safe to use without a human driver behind the wheel at all times. They are “Level 2” driver assistance systems, not fully autonomous vehicle technologies.
As CNBC previously reported, the NHTSA identified about a dozen collisions that involved Tesla drivers who collided with first responder cars while parked on the side of the road, usually at night or in the pre-dawn hours. In each of the accidents identified by NHTSA, Tesla drivers had cruise control, autopilot or traffic knowledge features before the accident occurred. One of the accidents resulted in the death of a person.
NHTSA wants to know if autopilot defects or design issues contributed to or caused those failures. And now they also want to know if a Tesla software update is a stealth recall.
If the agency considers the autopilot to be defective, it can request a recall and affect Tesla’s public image. Such a discovery could also inspire more urgency about the classification and regulation of driver assistance systems such as Tesla.
Currently, the NHTSA releases an annual New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) crash rating for vehicles sold in the United States. The NCAP Program Ratings List lists features included with each vehicle, but the agency has not yet evaluated the safety or limited use of driver assistance systems such as the Tesla.
As part of its Tesla probe, NHTSA is evaluating 12 similar systems for automakers.
Gregory Magno, head of NHTSA’s Acting Vehicle Defects division, told Tesla Field Quality Director Eddie Gates in the new letter that automakers are obligated to notify NHTSA within five business days when they become aware (or should be aware of) of safety issues in their vehicles that require fix.
Magnu confirmed that over-the-air software updates are covered by current federal refund laws.
The agency also asked Tesla for details about the expansion of the FSD Beta program.
The program gives Tesla owners who aren’t trained in safety drivers an opportunity to test pre-release software, and new driver assistance features on US public roads. The FSD Beta program does not make Tesla vehicles driverless, and they have not been decompiled enough for general use and wide release.
Among other things, the NHTSA requested detailed records of how Tesla rates and selects participants in the early access pilot program.
Recently, Tesla added a “beta button” that allows any customer to request access to an FSD Beta download. It has also released an insurance calculator that gives drivers seeking an FSD Beta a “safety score”.
Tesla owners who scored 100 points over a week of driving at least 100 miles were granted access to the FSD Beta this week to expand the program by nearly 1,000 people, according to CEO Elon Musk, who commented on the number at last week’s annual shareholder meeting.
Vehicle safety advocates, including the National Transportation Safety Board, have called on the NHTSA to regulate systems like Tesla’s Autopilot, FSD and FSD Beta sooner rather than later.