By Associated Press
DETROIT — The fiery crash of a Tesla near Houston with no one behind the wheel is drawing scrutiny from two federal agencies that could bring new regulation of electronic systems that take on some driving tasks.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the National Transportation Safety board said Monday they would send teams to investigate the Saturday night crash on a residential road that killed two men in a Tesla Model S.
Local authorities said one man was found in the passenger seat, while another was in the back. They’re issuing search warrants in the probe, which will determine whether the Tesla’s Autopilot partially automated system was in use. Autopilot can keep a car centered in its lane, keep a distance from cars in front of it, and can even change lanes automatically in some circumstances.
In the past, NHTSA, which has authority to regulate automakers and seek recalls for defective vehicles, has taken a hands-off approach to regulating partial and fully automated systems for fear of hindering development of promising new features.
But since March, the agency has stepped up inquiries into Teslas, dispatching teams to three crashes. It has investigated 28 Tesla crashes in the past few years, but thus far has relied on voluntary safety compliance from auto and tech companies.
“With a new administration in place, we’re reviewing regulations around autonomous vehicles,” the agency said last month.
Agency critics say regulations — especially of Tesla — are long overdue as the automated systems keep creeping toward being fully autonomous. At present, though, there are no specific regulations and no fully self-driving systems available for sale to consumers in the U.S.
At issue is whether Tesla CEO Elon Musk has over-sold the capability of his systems by using the name Autopilot or telling customers that “Full Self-Driving” will be available this year.
“Elon’s been totally irresponsible,” said Alain Kornhauser, faculty chair of autonomous vehicle engineering at Princeton University. Musk, he said, has sold the dream that the cars can drive themselves even though in the fine print Tesla says they’re not ready. “It’s not a game. This is serious stuff.”
In a tweet Monday , Musk said “Data logs recovered so far show Autopilot was not enabled & this car did not purchase FSD [Full Self-Driving]. Moreover, standard Autopilot would require lane lines to turn on, which this street did not have.”
Tesla /zigman2/quotes/203558040/composite TSLA +3.16% , which has disbanded its media relations office, did not respond to requests for comment Monday. Its stock fell 3.4% in the face of publicity about the crash, but gained about 1% in after-hours trading following Musk’s tweet.
In December, before former President Donald Trump left office, NHTSA sought public comment on regulations. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, whose department included NHTSA, said the proposal would address safety “without hampering innovation in development of automated driving systems.”
But her replacement under President Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, indicated before Congress that change might be coming.
“I would suggest that the policy framework in the U.S. has not really caught up with the technology platforms,” he said last month. “So we intend to pay a lot of attention for that and do everything we can within our authorities,” he said, adding that the agency may work with Congress on the issue.
Tesla has had serious problems with Autopilot, which has been involved in several fatal crashes where it failed to stop for tractor-trailers crossing in front of it, stopped emergency vehicles, or a highway barrier. The NTSB, which can only issue recommendations, asked that NHTSA and Tesla limit the system to roads on which the system can safely operate, and that Tesla install a more robust system to monitor drivers to make sure they’re paying attention. Neither Tesla nor the agency took action, drawing criticism and blame for one of the crashes from the NTSB.
Missy Cummings, an electrical and computer engineering professor at Duke University who studies automated vehicles, said the Texas crash is a watershed moment for NHTSA.
She’s not optimistic the agency will do anything substantial, but hopes the crash will bring change. “Tesla has had such a free pass for so long,” she said.