Latest Tesla Crash Draws More Scrutiny to Autopilot System

Why Tesla's Autopilot Is Under Investigation
  • Driver said to tell police driver-assist feature was engaged
  • Police say the Model X impacted median, rolled onto its roof

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration asked the Pennsylvania State Police for information about a July 1 Tesla Motors Co. rollover crash, the latest incident that puts a spotlight on the safety of its Autopilot driver assist technology.

This time, a 77-year-old Michigan man suffered injuries when his 2016 Tesla Model X SUV struck a concrete median strip on a Pennsylvania Turnpike in Bedford County and rolled onto its roof, coming to final rest in the middle of the roadway. The Detroit Free Press quoted a police officer saying the driver had told him Tesla’s Autopilot self-driving system was engaged when the accident occurred.

NHTSA said Wednesday that it’s “collecting information” from the state police, Tesla and the driver involved in the crash to ascertain “whether automated functions were in use at the time.”

Florida Crash

Last week, NHTSA announced that it was investigating a fatal crash in Florida that happened in May.

NHTSA hasn’t said there is a formal defect investigation on the Tesla Autopilot feature, a step it takes when it believes there is evidence of a design flaw that could lead to a safety recall. Still, it sent a special team of investigators to look at the Florida crash, an indication that there’s an issue of special interest to the regulator.

Tesla said in a statement that it received a message from the car in the Pennsylvania rollover July 1 indicating a “crash event,” but data logs weren’t transmitted.

“We have no data at this point to indicate that Autopilot was engaged or not engaged,” Tesla said. “This is consistent with the nature of the damage reported in the press, which can cause the antenna to fail.”

Police Report

A police report does not mention Autopilot as a factor, but says that the driver, who was injured, will be charged. Attempts to reach the driver and the police officer were unsuccessful.

Palo Alto, California-based Tesla said it has tried to contact the vehicle owner to confirm he was all right and to offer support, but it’s been unable to reach him. It isn’t possible to learn more about the crash without access to the vehicle’s onboard logs, Tesla said.

About 70,000 Tesla vehicles with Autopilot are on the road even though it’s still in so-called beta testing. The vehicles contain warnings to motorists to remain attentive.

In the May incident, a 40-year-old Ohio man was killed when his 2015 Model S drove under the trailer of an 18-wheeler on a highway near Williston, Florida. In a blog post, Tesla said that the crash was the first known fatality in more than 130 million miles of Autopilot driving, compared to 94 million miles for all cars.

In another blog post published late Thursday, Tesla stressed that no one has brought a product-liability claim against Tesla related to the Florida crash and offered a fiery defense of Autopilot.

“To be clear, this accident was the result of a semi-tractor trailer crossing both lanes of a divided highway in front of an oncoming car,” said Tesla. "Whether driven under manual or assisted mode, this presented a challenging and unexpected emergency braking scenario for the driver to respond to. In the moments leading up to the collision, there is no evidence to suggest that Autopilot was not operating as designed and as described to users: specifically, as a driver assistance system that maintains a vehicle’s position in lane and adjusts the vehicle’s speed to match surrounding traffic."

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