'Critical safety gap' between Tesla drivers, systems cited as NHTSA launches recall probe (2024)

Tesla said in December 2023 it would issue safety software updates to its autopilot features after crashes. But more crashes have federal regulators investigating whether the automaker did enough.

Mike SniderUSA TODAY

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is investigating the adequacy of Tesla's December 2023 recall of more than 2 million vehicles to update its autopilot features after numerous crashes.

NHTSA's Office of Defects Investigation is opening the investigation after it identified 20 crashes involving Tesla vehicles with updated software, the agency said in documents filed Friday.

After the software updates were deployed, "ODI identified concerns due to post-remedy crash events and results from preliminary NHTSA tests of remedied vehicles," the agency said in the filing.

The agency also closed a nearly three-year investigation analyzing 956 crashes involving Tesla vehicles up to Aug. 30, 2023. Nearly half of the accidents (467) could have been avoidable, ODI said, but happened because "Tesla’s weak driver engagement system was not appropriate for Autopilot’s permissive operating capabilities."

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In that investigation, the agency found at least 13 crashes "involving one or more fatalities and many more involving serious injuries in which foreseeable driver misuse of the system played an apparent role," it said.

Last week, a Tesla driven by someone with Tesla's Full Self-Driving beta feature reportedly engaged hit and killed a motorcyclist in Washington state. That feature isn't a total self-driving mode, but does more than autopilot – navigating turns and stopping at lights and signs – and still requires drivers to pay attention.

NHTSA: Tesla autopilot system has 'critical safety gap'

While often referred to as self-driving cars, Teslas actually have driver support features that make driving easier, but not totally automatic. Autopilot involves using Tesla's Traffic-Aware Cruise Control, which matches the speed of other traffic, and Autosteer, which helps keep the vehicle within a lane but drivers are supposed to have their hands on the wheel.

But drivers may be expecting their Tesla to do too much, federal regulators say.

A "critical safety gap between drivers’ expectations of (Tesla's drivers' assistance system's) operating capabilities and the system’s true capabilities … led to foreseeable misuse and avoidable crashes," the agency said in its closed investigation report.

In those 467 accidents, ODI said attentive drivers should have been able "to respond or mitigate the crash" in many cases. Other times, cars went off the road when Autosteer – Tesla's hands-on steering assist feature – "was inadvertently disengaged by the driver's inputs," or the features were being used in "low traction conditions such as wet roadways," the agency said.

The new investigation will "evaluate the adequacy of (the December 2023 recall), including the prominence and scope of Autopilot controls to address misuse, mode confusion, or usage in environments the system is not designed for," the agency said.

What Tesla vehicles were recalled?

When announced in December, the recall involved 2,031,220 vehicles: the 2012-2023Model S, 2016-2023Model X, 2017-2023Model 3and 2020-2023Model Yvehicles, all equipped with Tesla's Autosteer driver-assistance feature.

In its issuance of the December 2023 recall, Tesla noted that, "In certain circ*mstances when the Autosteer feature is engaged, and the driver does not maintain personal responsibility for vehicle operation and is unprepared to intervene as necessary or fails to recognize when Autosteer is canceled or not engaged, there may be an increased risk of a crash."

The ODI investigation includes newer models and the Tesla Cybertruck, too.

Models included in NHTSA investigation:

  • 2024 Tesla Cybertruck
  • 2017-2024 Tesla Model 3
  • 2021-2024 Tesla Model S
  • 2016-2024 Tesla Model X
  • 2020-2024 Tesla Model Y

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The new investigation lands as Tesla recently announced a decline in first quarter revenue and layoffs in Austin and the Bay Area. CEO Elon Musk, however, remained bullish on the company's self-driving technology and electric cars. And the company is expected to unveil its robotaxi on Aug. 8.

Reuters reportedin October 2022 that Tesla was under criminal investigation over its self-driving claims. Tesla said in October 2023 that the Justice Department had issued subpoenas related to its self-driving and autopilot technology.

Contributing: Emily DeLetter, James Powel, USA TODAY, and Reuters.

Follow Mike Snider on X and Threads:@mikesnider& mikegsnider.

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'Critical safety gap' between Tesla drivers, systems cited as NHTSA launches recall probe (2024)


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