The Tesla drama continues to unfold as a deadline set by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) for Tesla’s response concerning their Autopilot system lapses with no word from the automaker. As of July 19, 2023, Tesla remains silent on the NHTSA’s demands for updated information regarding its self-driving software and hardware.
This saga began when NHTSA publicly shared a letter, dated back to August 2022, calling upon Tesla to provide additional details in response to questions that had arisen during their ongoing investigation into Tesla’s Autopilot driver assistance system. The investigation was prompted by over a dozen instances where Tesla cars using Autopilot struck stationary emergency vehicles. The NHTSA is also looking into the extent to which Tesla ensures drivers remain attentive while utilizing Autopilot.
Tesla, no stranger to recalls, has experienced a litany of them in recent years, addressing various issues including seatbelt malfunctions, problems with batteries, and even more complex ones involving their Full Self-Driving system. These range from a rearview camera wiring problem in 356,000 Model 3 sedans recalled in December 2021, to “rolling stops” and speed limit non-compliance issues in more than 362,000 recalled Teslas in February 2023. With Ford currently holding the record for the most unique recalls as of 2021, Tesla’s trajectory indicates it might not be far behind.
Yet it’s crucial to point out that NHTSA’s recent letter doesn’t imply an impending recall for Tesla vehicles fitted with Autopilot. Rather, it appears to be a preliminary measure that could potentially lead to a recall if Tesla’s response fails to satisfy the NHTSA’s concerns.
At the heart of the issue are Tesla’s Autopilot and Full Self-Driving systems. While Autopilot comes standard in every Tesla, offering assistance with steering, acceleration, and braking, Full Self-Driving is a more advanced feature. Tesla has been upfront in stating that neither of these systems is entirely autonomous, and that drivers must remain vigilant while using them. Despite this, Tesla’s Autopilot system has been linked to 736 crashes and 17 fatalities since 2019, adding fuel to NHTSA’s probe.
Of significant concern in this investigation are the 16 reported collisions between Teslas and emergency vehicles. This raises questions about the effectiveness of Autopilot in recognizing parked emergency vehicles despite clear warning signals. Adding to this issue is the seemingly inadequate level of driver engagement when using Autopilot, even when their hands are on the steering wheel.
For their part, NHTSA has requested Tesla provide data regarding the usage of cabin cameras and the company’s “Tesla Vision”—a camera-only vision system for road perception. The letter also sought specifics about every U.S. manufactured Tesla model, details about the installed software and hardware versions, cabin cameras and Tesla Vision usage, modifications made to the vehicles, and the total mileage covered.
However, the July 19 deadline for Tesla’s response passed without any clear communication from the automaker. Silence from Tesla could lead to civil penalties reaching up to $26,315 per violation per day, capping at a hefty $131,564,183 according to the Vehicle Safety Act (49 U.S.C. § 30165). Meanwhile, due to the latest fatal accident, a new special crash investigation has commenced. As of now, the world watches and waits for Tesla’s move.