Coming under the scanner of regulatory agencies is never a favorable circumstance for any automaker, it is especially worse when you are one of the biggest automotive names in recent times and have been termed “An Industry Disruptor”. Tesla and the eccentric billionaire Elon Musk seem to have locked horns with US Auto Safety regulators as the latter opened up a formal safety probe into the Tesla Autopilot system just a couple of days ago which is also being dubbed as one of the broadest as well as the most stringent safety probes against the automaker.

Why, though?

The NHTSA had stated that the investigation has been prompted due to the fact that it had identified over 11 isolated incidents since January 2018 in which a Tesla vehicle had struck emergency vehicles that were serving as first responders to a scene of immediate concern. 

These incidents had unfortunately resulted in the death of one woman while over 17 individuals had been reported to be gravely injured. The mentioned fatality occurred in December 2019 where a Model 3 struck a parked Fire Truck in Indiana while it had its Autopilot functionality enabled thereby prompting allegations against its efficacy.

The NHTSA has in the past given a clean bill of health to the Tesla Autopilot system that Tesla employs in most of its vehicles in a probe that was conducted in 2017 however NHTSA’s confidence towards the efficiency of the Autopilot system has dwindled significantly due to the above-mentioned incidents.

What is Autopilot?

The Tesla Autopilot system has unofficially been dubbed as one of the smartest driver assistance systems on the market that offers up to Level 2 vehicle automation. The nature of the Autopilot system is as such, that it utilizes available sensors, cameras, and radar guidance (Radar Guidance is not available in newer Tesla Model 3’s and Y’s) to supplement human input to such an extent that one can even let go of steering and acceleration inputs for a considerable duration on highways and freeways although constant supervision is mandated.

The Autopilot is the culmination of Tesla’s efforts to one day be able to provide SAE Level 5 fully autonomous driving but industry experts have distinct reservations about these promises as they believe that Tesla currently lacks the kind of hardware that could enable such a dream.

What would the investigation entail?

The NHTSA investigation is slated to take into account over 765,000 Tesla vehicles that are optioned with the Autopilot functionality and could therefore issue a mandatory recall of all the encompassed vehicles if deemed necessary after the conclusion of the investigation.

  • One of the top priorities of this investigation is to look into how the Autopilot system ensures that a driver is paying attention to the road and is alert enough to retake control of the car’s inputs if the system fails to recognize a potential obstruction. This is being seriously debated upon as even though the manual explicitly instructs a driver to keep their hands on the steering wheel after engaging the Autopilot, there have been reports that the system remains operational even if the steering is occasionally tapped. This is in stark contrast to the approach that has been employed by other leading manufacturers such as GM in its “Super Cruise” system.  The Super Cruise system is also a driver assistance system with similar capabilities to the Tesla Autopilot system, but GM utilizes an infrared camera to monitor the driver’s eye elevation to ensure that they are paying attention to the road even if they let go of the steering wheel.

  • Another key factor that the investigation would focus on is examining how the Autopilot system distinguishes various different objects/obstructions on the road and under what conditions can the Autopilot be engaged. Although the Tesla manual states that the Autopilot feature is to be reserved for use solely on highways and expressways, there have been reports that users can get away with using the feature even on streets and narrow pathways which is a cause of concern. Taking the example of GM’s Super Cruise again to give the readers some perspective, GM utilizes a GPS lock on their Super Cruise system to prevent its use in areas that have oncoming traffic, pedestrians, cyclists, and intersections.

  • It has also been brought to light that Tesla’s Autopilot system appears to falter at detecting parked vehicles in general that don’t have their hazard lights enabled. This holds especially true during dusk and night times as the NHTSA has identified many separate incidents, four of which happened in the ingoing year itself in which a Tesla was involved in a crash even when flares and road cones were put in place.

Tesla’s Stand

Even though Tesla has mostly managed to defend itself in the past stating improper use of their systems on the user end, it still stands firmly alongside their Autopilot technology and continues to reiterate that roads are a safer place with the system being in place. If we are being completely objective about it though we certainly hold our own reservations against the true potential of the Autopilot system since Mr. Musk has on several occasions made inaccurate predictions for the future of this technology.

Although back when Autopilot was initially introduced, Tesla had a remarkable lead over traditional manufacturers in terms of both hardware and software superiority, as times have moved on, the industry has definitely caught up. If we are to refer to a May 2021 study by Guidehouse Insights, Tesla ranked last in terms of strategy and execution of its autonomous technology which is quite the low blow for a brand that claims to be technologically superior to everybody else.

Lately, Tesla had also announced that they were removing radar guidance from upcoming Model 3 and Model Y productions as they believed that the technology is rendered redundant by their superior onboard cameras, but this seems to have further aggravated concerns against the Autopilot not being as reliable as advertised. Many believed that having redundancies is a definitive need in driver assistance systems and we certainly stand by this ideology.

Our Take

Although Tesla has recently announced the “Tesla Vision” system that will supposedly be able to detect turn signals, emergency vehicle lights, hand gestures, and hazards, we do believe that this pending investigation stands in favor of the consumers. If Tesla manages to get through scot-free, not only will its public image improve, but Mr. Musk would cement his place as a definitive visionary.  

However, if Tesla is identified at fault, not only will stringent actions be taken against the company to prevent further fatalities via their vehicles, but also all the present vehicles will be recalled in order to make them appropriately safe for on-road use.