A US regulator has indicated it’s close to resolving its two-year investigation into Tesla’s Autopilot system, but it has asked for more information from the company.
“We’ll get to a resolution (of the Tesla probe),” National Highway Traffic Safety Administration head Ann Carlson told Reuters last week, adding “hopefully you’ll hear something relatively soon”.
However, on Tuesday it published a letter to Tesla, dated July 26, regarding a new concern it has with the automaker’s driver assist technology.
Tesla was instructed to reply by August 25 or face fines of up to US$26,315 (A$40,708) per day.
“Recently, NHTSA became aware that Tesla has introduced an Autopilot configuration that, when enabled, allows drivers using Autopilot to operate their vehicles for extended periods without Autopilot prompting the driver to apply torque to the steering wheel,” the letter reads.
“NHTSA is concerned that this feature was introduced to consumer vehicles and, now that the existence of this feature is known to the public, more drivers may attempt to activate it.
“The resulting relaxation of controls designed to ensure that the driver remain engaged in the dynamic driving task could lead to greater driver inattention and failure of the driver to properly supervise Autopilot.”
The regulator has asked Tesla to submit an array of information. Teslarati obtained a copy of these specific requests, which include when this software update was applied, how to activate this setting, how to roll back the update, as well as specific information about how this update has altered Autopilot.
It also wants Tesla’s “basis or purpose” for installing the software in consumer vehicles, reports on crashes or near-misses, and any findings from vehicles with the update applied.
As part of its investigation, the NHTSA is looking at 16 crashes involving Teslas colliding with emergency vehicles.
The regulator is also investigating over 20 deaths from crashes involving Teslas suspected to be using Autopilot.
In June 2022, it upgraded its probe into 830,000 vehicles – first opened in August 2021 – to an engineering analysis. This is a required step before it can demand a recall.
Tesla says its Autopilot system, which is a Level 2 autonomous driving feature, can handle steering and even execute lane change manoeuvres, but requires drivers to pay attention. To that end, it uses an interior camera to detect inattentiveness.
In sharp contrast with rival brands, Tesla has removed ultrasonic sensors and radar from its vehicles in favour of a camera-only set-up it calls Tesla Vision, which powers the two Level 2 autonomous driving features.
Tesla’s Autopilot has come under heavy scrutiny from all fronts of late.
This includes some of Tesla’s shareholders, who have filed a proposed class action suit against Tesla for making misleading statements about the technology, and the US Department of Justice, which is also reportedly examining whether the company has misled consumers, investors and regulators.