Detroit: Two crashes apparently involving Tesla’s Autopilot are drawing scrutiny from federal regulators and pointing to a potential new danger on U.S. freeways: partially automated vehicles unable to stop for motorcycles.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) sent investigation teams into two crashes last month in which Teslas collided with motorcycles on freeways in the dark. Both were fatal. The agency suspects Tesla’s partially automated driver-assist system was in use in each.
The agency says that once more information is gathered, it could include extensive inspections of Teslas striking emergency vehicles parked on the freeway. NHTSA is investigating more than 750 complaints that Teslas may brake unnecessarily.
The first accident involving a motorcyclist occurred on July 7 at 4:47 a.m. on State Route 91 in Riverside, California. A white Tesla Model Y SUV was traveling eastbound in the high-occupancy vehicle lane. Ahead of him was a rider on a green Yamaha V-Star motorcycle, the California Highway Patrol said in a statement.
In no time, the vehicles collided and the unidentified motorcyclist fell off the Yamaha. Firefighters declared him dead on the spot. Whether the Tesla was operating on Autopilot remains under investigation, a CHP spokeswoman said.
The second crash happened around 1:09 a.m. on July 24 on Interstate 15 near Draper, Utah. A Tesla Model 3 sedan was behind a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, also in the HOV lane.
“The driver of the Tesla did not see the motorcyclist and struck the rear of the motorcycle, throwing the rider off the bike,” the Utah Department of Public Safety said in a prepared statement.
The rider, identified as Landon Embry, 34, of Orem, Utah, died at the scene. The Tesla driver told officers he had the vehicle’s Autopilot setting turned on, the statement said.
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Michael Brooks, acting executive director of the nonprofit Center for Auto Safety, called on NHTSA to recall Tesla’s Autopilot because it doesn’t recognize motorcyclists, emergency vehicles or pedestrians.
“It’s very clear to me, and it should be to a lot of Tesla owners by now, that this stuff is not working properly and it’s not performing as expected, and it’s putting innocent people on the road at risk,” Brooks said.
Since 2016, NHTSA has sent teams to 39 crashes in which automated driving systems are suspected to be in use, according to agency documents. That included 30 Teslas, which crashed and killed 19. Brooks criticized the agency for continuing to investigate but not taking action.
“What are they doing while this is crashing?” he asked. “Drivers are lured into thinking it’s protecting them and others on the road, and it’s not working.”
Tesla CEO Elon Musk has eliminated the use of radar from his systems and relies entirely on cameras and computer memory. Brooks and other safety advocates say the lack of radar impairs visibility in the dark.
Messages were left seeking comment from Tesla, which has disbanded its media relations department. Tesla has said that Autopilot and “Full Self-Driving” cannot operate by themselves, and that drivers must always be ready to intervene.
Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times reported Friday that the California Department of Motor Vehicles has accused Tesla of false advertising in its Autopilot and fully self-driving ads. The allegations come in complaints filed with the state’s Office of Administrative Hearings on July 28, The Times reported.
In a June interview, new NHTSA Administrator Steven Cliff said the agency is intensifying efforts to understand the risks posed by automated vehicles so it can determine what regulations are needed to protect drivers, passengers and pedestrians.
There are no federal regulations directly covering self-driving vehicles or vehicles with partially automated driver-assist systems such as Autopilot. The agency also says the technology holds great promise for reducing traffic crashes.
NHTSA has ordered all automakers and tech companies with automated driving systems to report all crashes. The agency released the first batch of data in June showing that nearly 400 crashes were reported over a 10-month period, including 273 involving Tesla.
But he cautioned against comparisons, saying Tesla’s telematics allows much faster, real-time data collection than other companies. Tesla’s Autopilot keeps cars in their lane and keeps a distance behind other vehicles. The company is using select owners to test “full self-driving” software, which is designed to complete routes on its own with human supervision.
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Eventually, Musk says cars will drive themselves, enabling a fleet of autonomous robotics that will boost Tesla’s revenue. In 2019, Musk promised to continue Robotaxis in 2020.
He told the company’s annual shareholder meeting on Thursday that “full self-driving” has been greatly improved and that he expects to make the software available to all owners who request it by the end of the year.