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NHTSA opens formal investigation into Tesla's autopilot on its more than 700,000 vehicles

Built in the Bay
(Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

By Ian Firstenberg

(DETROIT) A federal agency opened an investigation into Tesla's Autopilot partially automated driving system following a number of collisions, one of which was fatal, with emergency and other vehicles.

The sweeping investigation, covering 765,000 cars or almost all of the vehicles the company has distributed since its first model was sold in 2014, by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) will look into at least 11 crashes since 2018 in which the autopilot system has hit emergency vehicles. Of those crashes, 17 people were injured and one person was killed.

The NHTSA investigation covers Tesla models Y, X, S and 3. This follows 28 special investigations into Tesla crashes with 24 pending.

According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), Autopilot was operating in at least three Tesla-involved crashes. The NTSB has previously criticized Tesla's lack of additional safeguards on the Autopilot system, which does allow drivers to take their hands off the wheel.

The NTSB has previously recommended that the Bay Area-based automaker limit the areas it can use the Autopilot function. Last year, the NTSB blamed the automaker, drivers and loose regulations at the NHTSA for two collisions in which Tesla models crashed underneath tractor-trailers.

In an unusual move, the NTSB accused the NHTSA of contributing to the crash by failing to adequately require safeguards for Tesla's electronic driving systems. This comes after the agency investigated a fatal Tesla crash, in which the Autopilot was engaged, in Delray Beach, Florida in 2019. The 50-year-old driver of a Model 3 was killed when neither he nor the Autopilot identified a tractor-trailer crossing the roadway and the vehicle slammed into it.

“We are glad to see NHTSA finally acknowledge our long standing call to investigate Tesla for putting technology on the road that will be foreseeably misused in a way that is leading to crashes, injuries, and deaths,” said Jason Levine, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Auto Safety, an advocacy group.

Autopilot has been continually misused and posed a huge risk to consumers since the limited release of the feature in 2018.

Tesla could not be reached for comment and has notably disbanded its media relations office.

Since June 2016, NHTSA has sent investigative teams to 31 crash sites involving partially automated driver-assist systems. Twenty-five of those 31 crashes involved Tesla Autopilot, and 10 deaths were reported related to those crashes.

The emergency vehicle crashes cited by NHTSA date back to Jan. 22, 2018, when a Tesla using Autopilot struck a firetruck that was in the travel lane with its lights flashing.

Tesla shares fell 3.5 percent at the opening bell Monday.

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