The national agency responsible for road safety in United State (NHTSA) is expanding its investigation into accidents involving Teslas. It now relates to the 830,000 vehicles (Model Y, Model X, Model S, Model 3) sold from 2014 by the company, that is, nearly all of the cars sold by the company, and no longer the 765,000 as initially announced last August.

This investigation, which concerns an advanced driver assistance system (ADAS) called Autopilot, follows dozens of collisions involving parked emergency vehicles. NHTSA now performs technical analysis (“engineering analysis”). A necessary step before the agency can make a possible recall of the vehicle, details Reuters.

Examine 17 crashes closely

Thus the NHTSA opens the final stage of the investigation, and must decide within one year whether the vehicle should be recalled or the investigation closed. It follows a preliminary investigation by NHTSA in 2021 into 11 emergency vehicle accidents. The agency has since identified six other incidents that occurred in the past two years.

In most cases, the autopilot instructed the driver to regain control of the vehicle less than a second before the collision. The emergency braking system intervenes in at least half of the accidents. The NHTSA also found that first responders on the road were visible to drivers an average of eight seconds before a collision. But forensic data showed that no driver did any dodge between 2 and 5 seconds before the collision, despite having their hands on the steering wheel.

Drivers vigil enough?

NHTSA is studying whether Tesla cars adequately warrant drivers’ attention. In most cases, drivers seem to adhere to the standards set by Tesla and, for example, keep their hands on the steering wheel. So the fact that collisions were not avoided raises questions about whether Tesla’s warning strategy is adequate.

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The NHTSA, as detailed by Reuters, said the update consists of “To extend existing collision analysis, evaluate additional data sets, perform vehicle assessments, and explore the extent to which autopilot and related Tesla systems can exacerbate human factors or behavioral safety risks by undermining the effectiveness of driver supervision.”

The importance of human-machine interactions

In addition to the above incidents, the US agency considered another 106 autopilot incidents. In nearly half of these accidents, the driver was “unresponsive”. This would highlight the fact that if drivers’ hands are already on the wheel, they don’t care enough about their environment. A study conducted by MIT researchers last September revealed that Tesla drivers are less attentive when operating the autopilot system.

How the driver can interact with an in-vehicle system, and vice versa, is an important design consideration for Level 2 autonomous driving technologies. The NHTSA added that “A driver’s use or misuse of vehicle components, or the inadvertent operation of the vehicle, does not necessarily rule out a system error.” Tesla must provide answers to the US agency, which can then decide whether or not it intends to conduct a vehicle recall.

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