Federal Agencies Launch Probe into California Tesla Crash

Two federal agencies have sent out teams to investigate the California crash of a Tesla Model S electric car that may have been operating under its semi-autonomous “Autopilot” system. According to a report in the Claims Journal, this is the second time the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) have investigated the performance of Tesla’s Autopilot, which is supposed to keep a vehicle centered in its lane and set a distance from cars ahead. This driver-assist feature can also change lanes and brake automatically.

Investigation Zeroes in on Autopilot

NTSB has sent two investigators to Culver City and NHTSA has confirmed that it will dispatch a special team to “investigate the crash and assess the lessons learned.” Neither agency would make further comment, but it appears that they will seek information about whether the Autopilot was engaged in the Tesla Model S when the crash occurred and if the sensors in the vehicle somehow failed too a stopped fire truck on the Interstate 405 in Culver City Jan. 22.

NTSB officials tweeted that investigators will focus on driver and vehicle factors. The driver of the Tesla in this case told California Highway Patrol investigators that he had activated Autopilot before the crash. The crash is still under investigation as CHP officials have said they haven’t been able to verify the driver’s statement just yet. This investigation comes at a time when Congress and federal agencies are grappling with how to regulate autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles. While these systems have the potential to prevent crashes caused by human error, the robot vehicles can also make mistakes or malfunction.

In September, the NTSB determined that design limitations of the Tesla Model S Autopilot played a role in a fatal May 2016 crash in Florida involving a vehicle that was in Autopilot mode. However, NTSB blamed the crash on an inattentive driver who overly relied on technology and a truck driver who turned left in front of the car. Tesla has not yet made any comments about whether the Autopilot was engaged at the time of the Culver City crash. No injuries were reported as a result of this collision.

Serious Safety Concerns

As California auto defect lawyers, our concern here is two-fold. First, are these systems ready for primetime? Have automakers and tech companies done their due diligence in testing these vehicles before putting them in consumers’ hands? Or are we being used as guinea pigs to test out the technology of the future? Secondly, is Tesla properly marketing its semi-autonomous vehicles? The word “Autopilot” can be misconstrued by drivers to mean “fully autonomous” when it really is not.

Tesla has been alerting drivers after a series of Autopilot-related crashes that drivers should keep their hands on the wheel at all times even if Autopilot is engaged. Then, the question arises: Why call it Autopilot? Isn’t it simply misleading? It seems to us that Tesla and other automakers and tech companies need to be far more diligent about testing their autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles away from our public roadways before they put them on the market.