(TNS) – After four years of laissez-faire treatment under the Trump administration, the country’s leading auto safety agency, Elon Musk and Tesla, makes it clear that there is a new sheriff in town.
In June, the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration ordered automakers to pull data on every accident using automated driving systems like Tesla’s autopilot. Last month, it launched an investigation into a dozen accidents in which Teslas autopilot plowed into parked ambulances.
Then, on Tuesday, the NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation sent an 11-page letter instructing Tesla to provide the agency with an enormous amount of detailed data on every Tesla vehicle sold or leased in the U.S. from 2014 to 2021 became a very big deal, “said Bryant Walker Smith, a professor at the University of South Carolina and one of the foremost experts in the field of automated motor vehicle law.
Back in 2016, when automated driving systems first attracted widespread public attention, the agency published enforcement guidelines that made it clear that it could enforce safety regulations for software systems, not just traditional components such as carburetors, airbags, or ignition switches.
However, the Trump administration subsequently took a lax approach to enforcing the NHTSA. Up to 30 investigations against Tesla have been initiated investigating autopilot and other safety concerns, but the vast majority have either been resolved or are still ongoing.
The agency’s new activism is bad news for Tesla, whose electric car revenue is in part from the popularity of its autopilot driver assistance system and the $ 10,000 it receives from buyers of its full self-driving system (which, in fact, isn’t is the case) a fully self-propelled system).
If the traffic and safety administration detects autopilot or FSD in a way that threatens public safety, the functions could be recalled, a prospect that could force changes to the systems and potentially result in a ban while safety concerns are allayed, say Legal experts.
Even a finding that Tesla is promoting “predictable abuse,” which the NHTSA calls it, could cause problems for autopilot. Tesla’s legal language states that human drivers must be careful at all times while the autopilot is on, but Tesla marketing, including videos of Musk driving Tesla without using his hands, has apparently contradicted the warnings. A growing library of YouTube videos shows Tesla drivers abusing the system, some of them crawling into the backseat while the car “drives itself”.
Although NHTSA has set Tesla a tight deadline to submit its data, which is due Oct. 22, Smith said a recall or other enforcement would not come immediately, and until NHTSA acted, new software iterations or a change in Tesla marketing could make matters moot.
“This is also a very long and potentially hidden process that depends on how Tesla reacts,” said Smith. “I could imagine that this might take a long time.”
If the past is a sign of this, Musk may prove to be less cooperative. He once hung up on the chief of the National Transportation Safety Board. When the Securities and Exchange Commission sought information from Tesla in 2020, Musk tweeted out a tweet asking the commission to have oral sex with him.
Tesla could try to preempt the investigation by declaring much of the data in question as proprietary business information, Smith said. The company could obscure the data in formats that make it difficult to extract useful information. The agency itself may not have sufficient expertise to analyze the data dump and legal challenges could arise.
But that hardly means the attempt is unsuccessful, added Smith. “This is the NHTSA trying to open the doors to a lot of information and it will be fascinating to see what comes out of it.”
Autopilot crashes have resulted in injuries and deaths, Smith said, and the NHTSA is clearly trying to better understand where technology is headed in the industry, rather than just investigating previous crashes. “It is an effort to stay ahead of new accidents and understand what is happening in these cars and in these companies.”
The letter to Tesla collects data relating to accidents, consumer complaints, lawsuits, injury claims, property damage claims, accident reports, descriptions of how Tesla technology works, performance metrics, warranty claims, vehicle safety test procedures and. has collected dozens of other subjects.
Tesla critics have accused the company of conducting “secret recalls” that try to solve security problems while keeping them out of the public eye. One goal of the NHTSA’s request for data appears to be to uncover evidence of problems that Tesla has successfully covered up or given cause for notice, Smith said. A company that can monitor its vehicles could detect incidents and quickly deal with them so that they don’t leak to the public, he said.
Even if there are no recalls in the future, the traffic and safety administration could quickly publish fundamental conclusions based on the data obtained. That could affect other agencies like the Federal Trade Commission, Smith said. Two US senators have asked the agency to investigate potentially fraudulent marketing practices.
Tesla did not respond to a request for comment. Musk hasn’t addressed the NHTSA’s illuminating limelight on the company. On Wednesday, Musk tweeted the claim that “Tesla always puts safety first”.
A few minutes earlier, he tweeted his intention to send a new “beta” version of the full self-driving software to select Tesla drivers next week. “Beta” is a software industry term for limited-release software that is not ready for prime time for users to identify and correct bugs and other defects.
In other words, even under the increasingly vigilant eyes of the regulatory authorities, things will remain as usual at Tesla for the time being.
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