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Tesla called upon to explain Autopilot function

Tesla has been asked by the US government’s road safety agency to share detailed information about how the Autopilot system detects and responds to emergency vehicles parked on roads.

Tesla Autopilot offers a range of features that the company says will help prevent accidents caused by driver negligence and fatigue. It includes cruise control, lane centering and changes, and parking. Media reports of fatal accidents in which drivers hand over full control to Tesla Autopilot have prompted the company to emphasize that the driver must maintain control of the car while it is operating in Autopilot mode.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has conducted a number of investigations into accidents on Autopilot since 2018. Last month, a Tesla running on Autopilot collided with a parked Florida Highway Patrol vehicle in Orlando.

Now, the NHTSA has requested details about how the system works, via an 11-page letter sent to the automaker. The agency is particularly interested in:

  • How Autopilot recognizes an accident scene (e.g. due to the presence of flashing lights, high-visibility clothing, and flashes of light).
  • Whether this works acceptably well in low light conditions.
  • What action do the cars take when emergency vehicles are present.
  • How a Tesla car gives a warning to the driver.

The agency wants to find out how it can make sure drivers pay attention and don’t abuse Autopilot, after multiple accidents involving drunk or distracted drivers. It also asks for information about Tesla’s policies and procedures for testing Autopilot updates before releasing them to Tesla owners.

Tesla is beta testing its systems by using customers to collect real-world data while they are driving. The request includes “the extent of field testing or vehicle validation miles required prior to the release of such system or feature”.

The NHTSA’s letter is part of a wider investigation into how Autopilot behaves when emergency vehicles are parked while crews deal with accidents or other hazards. The survey includes an estimated 765,000 vehicles, with models from 2014 to 2021.

The agency says it could fine Tesla more than $114 million (£83 million) if it doesn’t follow the rules. It has until October 22 to respond to the request for information or request a postponement.

Meanwhile, the National Transportation Safety Board, which has also overseen Tesla investigations, has recommended that the NHTSA and Tesla limit the use of Autopilot to areas where they can be sure it can operate safely. It has also recommended that the NHTSA require Tesla to improve Autopilot and add features to help keep drivers focused. However, the board has no enforcement powers and can only make recommendations. So far, the NHTSA has not taken these actions.

Last month, Consumer Reports expressed concern that Autopilot lacks adequate safety features. It announced plans to independently test the latest software upgrade, FSD beta 9, following the emergence of video footage of worrisome behavior of Teslas running on the software, including scraping against bushes and heading toward parked cars.