Tesla is allowing no-hands driving with Autopilot for longer periods. US regulators have questions

by Gabriel Martinez
Autopilot Safety

Tesla has recently enabled an extended no-hands driving feature through its Autopilot driver-assist system, a move that has sparked concerns from safety regulators in the United States. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has taken action by instructing Tesla to provide information about the number of vehicles that have received the software update facilitating this capability. Additionally, the NHTSA is seeking further details regarding the company’s plans for broader implementation of this feature.

The primary concern expressed by the NHTSA is the potential increase in instances where drivers attempt to activate this feature now that its existence has become public knowledge. This could lead to drivers becoming more inattentive and failing to properly supervise the Autopilot system, ultimately jeopardizing road safety.

John Donaldson, the acting chief counsel of the agency, conveyed these concerns in a letter dated July 26, addressed to Tesla. He underscored that relaxing the controls meant to ensure driver engagement in the driving process might result in heightened driver distraction and a failure to adequately monitor the Autopilot’s operations.

Tesla’s response to these concerns is still awaited, and the company has not yet issued an official statement regarding the matter. However, Elon Musk, Tesla’s CEO, took to social media, specifically X (formerly known as Twitter), to express his enthusiasm for Tesla’s Autopilot, though no direct comment on the NHTSA’s concerns was provided.

This development follows the ongoing investigation by the government into Tesla’s Autopilot system, which has been associated with accidents involving emergency vehicles, motorcycles, and large trucks. Since 2016, there have been 35 Tesla crashes investigated for potential involvement of the partially automated driving systems. Notably, a formal probe was initiated in 2021, with a reported 17 fatalities associated with these incidents.

In response to these concerns, Tesla has maintained that both Autopilot and the more advanced “Full Self-Driving” system do not equate to fully autonomous driving. Drivers are expected to be vigilant and ready to take control of the vehicle at any moment. Autopilot’s capabilities currently include lane keeping and maintaining a safe distance from objects in the vehicle’s path.

The NHTSA’s directive calls for Tesla to provide a detailed description of the changes introduced in the software update that reduces or eliminates instances where Autopilot prompts drivers to apply pressure on the steering wheel. This includes specifics about the duration during which Autopilot can function without requiring driver intervention, as well as any auditory or visual cues presented to the driver.

Furthermore, the letter issued to Tesla demands an explanation for the rationale behind the software update and the criteria for selecting the consumers who received it. The NHTSA also seeks records of accidents and near misses involving vehicles with the updated software and inquires about any intentions to enable this software in consumer vehicles within the next year.

A deadline of August 25 has been set for Tesla to provide a response, which must be made under oath. Failure to comply could result in the matter being escalated to the Justice Department, potentially leading to significant penalties.

Tesla’s monitoring system for drivers has previously faced criticism from safety advocates and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) for allowing drivers to disengage when Autopilot is active. The NTSB, which has no regulatory authority, has previously recommended that Tesla and other automakers restrict the use of partially automated systems to specific road types and enhance driver monitoring systems.

While the investigation and regulatory scrutiny continue, the intersection of technology, automation, and road safety remains a focal point, with both Tesla and regulators grappling to strike a balance between innovation and ensuring safe driving practices.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Autopilot Safety

What is the recent development involving Tesla’s Autopilot system?

Tesla has introduced a feature allowing extended hands-free driving using its Autopilot driver-assist system. This has raised concerns from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) regarding safety implications.

Why is the NHTSA concerned about this feature?

The NHTSA is concerned that the introduction of this feature to consumer vehicles, coupled with its public awareness, might encourage more drivers to activate it. This could potentially lead to greater driver inattention and a failure to properly supervise the Autopilot system.

What action has the NHTSA taken regarding this matter?

The NHTSA has ordered Tesla to provide information about the number of vehicles that have received the software update enabling this feature. Additionally, the agency is seeking details about Tesla’s plans for wider distribution of the feature.

How has Tesla responded to the NHTSA’s concerns?

As of now, Tesla has not issued an official response to the NHTSA’s concerns about the extended hands-free driving feature.

What is Tesla’s stance on the capabilities of Autopilot and Full Self-Driving?

Tesla asserts that both the Autopilot and Full Self-Driving systems are not fully autonomous and require drivers to be attentive and ready to intervene at any moment.

What are the concerns that the NHTSA has with partially automated systems like Autopilot?

The NHTSA has been investigating accidents involving partially automated driving systems, like Autopilot, for potential safety issues, including crashes with emergency vehicles and instances of driver disengagement.

How is Tesla expected to respond to the NHTSA’s directive?

Tesla is required to provide a comprehensive response to the NHTSA’s inquiries under oath by a specified deadline. Failure to comply could result in the matter being referred to the Justice Department.

What is the role of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in this situation?

The NTSB has previously recommended certain limitations on the use of partially automated systems and enhanced driver monitoring. However, it lacks regulatory authority and can only make recommendations to automakers and relevant agencies.

What is the broader context of this situation?

This development underscores the ongoing challenge of striking a balance between technological innovation, such as automated driving systems, and ensuring road safety. It highlights the need to carefully evaluate the risks and benefits of such advancements.

What are the potential implications of this situation for Tesla and the automotive industry?

The outcome of the NHTSA’s investigation and Tesla’s response could influence the trajectory of automated driving technology and regulations in the automotive industry, potentially shaping future developments and safety standards.

More about Autopilot Safety

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PoliticNerd2023 August 30, 2023 - 4:07 pm

Tesla’s in a bit of a pickle with NHTSA. No-hands on the wheel? Gov ain’t happy. Questions flyin’ like crazy.

FinanceWhiz123 August 30, 2023 - 5:17 pm

Tesla’s push for no-hands drivin’ raises eyebrows. Safety, huh? NHTSA wants answers, and rightly so. #SafetyFirst

CryptoRider August 31, 2023 - 9:12 am

Autopilot’s buzz got me intrigued, but NHTSA’s got its knickers in a twist. Safety concerns or fear of the future?

TechGeekMaster August 31, 2023 - 10:26 am

Tesla’s Autopilot is rockin’ the boat, no hands needed! NHTSA’s giving ’em the hairy eyeball. Safety vs. autonomy showdown!


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