The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) will resolve its two-year investigation into Tesla’s Autopilot and could make a public announcement soon, the agency’s acting head told Reuters. “We’ll get to a resolution,” Ann Carlson said in an interview at the agency’s headquarters.
The NHTSA is probing how drivers interact with Autopilot and whether the system adequately monitors them to ensure they pay attention. The agency is also considering whether Tesla vehicles with the system are safe to drive when the Autopilot feature is engaged.
Tesla’s Autopilot system allows drivers to perform many of the same functions as other semi-autonomous systems, such as lane changing and adaptive cruise control. Still, there have been several high-profile accidents in which drivers have been killed while using the software. The incidents have raised concerns about the safety of Tesla’s Autopilot and the broader field of advanced driver assistance systems.
Last month, the NHTSA upgraded its probe into Autopilot to an engineering analysis phase, a step that can lead to recalls or other remedial action. The probe now covers 830,000 Tesla vehicles in the United States with the Autopilot feature. NHTSA is reviewing a growing list of incidents in which Tesla drivers have struck emergency vehicles while the system was activated.
NHTSA’s chief counsel earlier this year hired Carlson to be the next NHTSA administrator. The position did not require Senate confirmation, and she took the post in January 2021. Since then, she has overseen several NHTSA initiatives, including developing an automatic emergency braking requirement and implementing new light-duty vehicle fuel economy requirements.
In her interview with Reuters, Carlson said the Autopilot probe would be resolved “fairly quickly.” She also highlighted the overarching challenges with advanced driver assist systems. She said that drivers must be vigilant, and the technology must recognize and counter human tendencies to over-rely on automation.
NHTSA is also examining how the Tesla system is designed to indicate that the driver must take control of the car and how it responds to attempts by the driver to reengage Autopilot. The agency has also considered how the system handles certain road conditions, such as steep grades or tunnels.
NHTSA has questioned whether Tesla’s Autopilot is safe on roads with sharp curves. In a video posted to YouTube, the agency warned Tesla drivers that the system cannot be trusted at these speeds and that drivers should always remain in control of their vehicles. In one of the more severe cases, a Model 3 driver was killed in June while his vehicle was in Autopilot mode. It is believed that the driver was distracted by a phone and didn’t notice the curve as it approached. The driver, William Rehm Jr., had the Autopilot system enabled, but he was not wearing a seat belt at the time of the crash. It was the seventh fatal accident involving a Tesla equipped with Autopilot that NHTSA has cited.