‘Extensive’ Tesla Autopilot probe proceeding ‘really fast’ -U.S. official

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The acting head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) told reporters on Monday that the regulatory agency is “working really fast” on the Tesla Autopilot investigation it opened in August 2021.

“We’re investing a lot of resources,” said NHTSA acting head Ann Carlson in comments to reporters on the sidelines of an event in Washington. She declined to commit to a particular timeframe on when the probe will be resolved. “The resources require a lot of technical expertise, actually some legal novelty and so we’re moving as quickly as we can, but we also want to be careful and make sure we have all the information we need.”

In June, NHTSA upgraded to an engineering analysis its defect probe into 830,000 Tesla vehicles with driver assistance system Autopilot and involving crashes with parked emergency vehicles. That step was necessary before the agency could demand a recall.

NHTSA is reviewing whether Tesla vehicles adequately ensure drivers are paying attention. Previously, the agency said evidence suggested drivers in most crashes under review had complied with Tesla’s alert strategy that seeks to compel driver attention, raising questions about its effectiveness.

Carlson confirmed the agency was in discussions with Tesla about a Dec. 31 tweet that Chief Executive Elon Musk wrote about a driver monitoring function.

Carlson, who has been general counsel of the agency since early 2021, became acting administrator of NHTSA in September.

A Dec. 31 tweet suggested drivers with more than 10,000 miles using Tesla’s “Full Self-Driving” (FSD) software system should be able to disable the “steering wheel nag,” an alert that instructs drivers to hold the wheel to confirm they are paying attention. Musk responded: “Agreed, update coming in Jan.”

Carlson said the agency has “a very extensive investigation ongoing… We are in conversations with Tesla about this latest communication.”

Tesla did not immediately comment.

In 2020, the National Transportation Safety Board criticized Tesla’s “ineffective monitoring of driver engagement” after a 2018 fatal Autopilot crash and said NHTSA had provided “scant oversight.”

Tesla sells the $15,000 FSD software as an add-on which enables its vehicles to change lanes and park autonomously. That complements its standard “Autopilot” feature, which enables cars to steer, accelerate and brake within their lanes without driver intervention. Both systems use the steering wheel monitoring function.

Last month, NHTSA said it had opened two new special investigations into crashes involving Tesla vehicles where advanced driver assistance systems are suspected to have been in use. Since 2016, NHTSA has opened more than three dozen Tesla special crash investigations where advanced driver assistance systems such as Autopilot were suspected of being used with 19 crash deaths reported.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Leslie Adler and David Gregorio)

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