Safety Regulators Ask Tesla for Details of Autopilot Crashes

A Model S P85D on display at the Tesla Motors retail store in San Jose, California.

A Model S P85D on display at the Tesla Motors retail store in San Jose, California.

Photographer: Michael Short/Bloomberg
  • NHTSA releases July 8 questions to automaker after wrecks
  • ‘No determinition’ made on whether vehicles are defective

Federal safety regulators have asked Tesla Motors Inc. for a broad range of documents and information about the automated driving systems in use when a 2015 Model S collided with a truck in a fatal accident in Florida.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says it hasn’t made a determination about whether the vehicles are defective and described the information request as a “standard step” in the preliminary evaluation of Tesla’s automated driving system.

In a July 8 letter to the company NHTSA released Tuesday, the agency told Tesla’s director of field performance engineering it was examining the automatic emergency braking system and “any other” forward crash avoidance systems in use at the time of the fatal crash.

Tesla’s so-called Autopilot features, which are available on more than 70,000 vehicles worldwide, have come under scrutiny since May, when an Ohio man died after his Tesla Model S failed to react to an 18-wheeler crossing the road in Florida. In a June 30 blog post, Tesla stressed that the crash was the first known fatality in more than 130 million miles of Autopilot driving, compared to a death every 94 million miles for all cars.

Seeking Design

In the nine-page letter detailing its information request, NHTSA asked for descriptions of the design of the driver-assist system, modifications made since they went into production, testing results and all reports and complaints of accidents involving the vehicles that may be due to the driver-assistance system. NHTSA asked Tesla to respond to some of the questions by July 29 and others by Aug. 26.

Two other crashes have been reported since the Florida fatality. Pennsylvania State Police cited the driver of a Tesla Model X sport utility vehicle involved in a July 1 crash that may have involved Autopilot technology for careless driving, according to a report released Monday.

Meanwhile, another Tesla driver has told Montana police that Autopilot was engaged during an accident that occurred on Saturday. The carmaker confirmed that the Autopilot was engaged when the car drove off the side of the road. The driver didn’t have his hands on the wheel in spite of alerts by the vehicle telling him to do so, according to a Tesla statement released Tuesday.

Hands Free

“The data suggests that the driver’s hands were not on the steering wheel, as no force was detected on the steering wheel for over 2 minutes after autosteer was engaged,” the company said in the statement. “This is contrary to the terms of use that are agreed to when enabling the feature and the notification presented in the instrument cluster each time it is activated.”

Tesla advises against using the automatic-driving features at high speeds on undivided roads, the company said.

The driver, who wasn’t identified by police, said the Model X veered off the right of the road and struck wooden posts holding a cable railing, Montana Highway Patrol Trooper Jade Shope said. The accident heavily damaged the front-right portion of the car and tore off one of the wheels but didn’t injure the driver or a passenger, according to Shope.

Shope issued the driver a citation late Monday for careless driving.

The National Transportation Safety Board said Friday it is also probing the fatal Florida crash.

When asked for comment on the NHTSA filing, the company referred to the blog post in which the company said it told the regulator about the Florida accident “immediately after it occurred.” The Autopilot feature “is getting better all the time, but it is not perfect and still requires the driver to remain alert,” the company said in the blog post.

SEC Query

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission is reviewing whether Tesla, which sold $1.4 billion in stock in mid-May to pay for expanded production, failed to properly notify investors about the Florida crash before the sale, the Wall Street Journal reported Monday, citing a person familiar with the matter.

Tesla didn’t disclose the fatality to investors before raising money for expanded production or proposing on June 21 to acquire of SolarCity Corp. The SEC declined to comment Monday.

“Tesla has not received any communication from the SEC regarding this issue,” Tesla said Monday in an e-mail.

The Autopilot feature maintains a vehicle’s position in a well-marked lane and adjusts speed to match surrounding traffic and is still in so-called beta testing. Drivers have to actively engage Autopilot, and the vehicles warn motorists to keep their hands on the wheel.

“Point of calling it ‘beta’ was to emphasize to those who chose to use it that it wasn’t perfect,” Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk said on Twitter.

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