As self-driving cars are proliferating Indiana’s and the nation’s highways, federal regulatory agencies are beginning to investigate the actual safety of these vehicles.
The principal suspect is Tesla’s self-navigating system, named “Autopilot” by the company. According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, the Autopilot system was engaged in three Tesla vehicles that caused serious or fatal car accidents.
The most recent accident involving the Tesla Autopilot occurred in Indiana when a Tesla crashed into a parked fire truck, killing a passenger in the car. A second accident under investigation occurred in California when a Tesla under control of Autopilot exited from a freeway, ran a red light and struck a Honda Civic, killing both of the car’s occupants. The investigation will focus on the ability of the Autopilot system to detect and avoid dangerous situations. The NHTSA has also questioned the system’s ability to detect and avoid stationary objects, such as parked vehicles.
For its part, Tesla has stated that drivers must keep their hands on the steering wheel and pay attention to the car at all times. Tesla says that Autopilot enables the car to steer, accelerate and brake automatically as long as it remains in the same lane. Tesla is apparently not claiming that a car using Autopilot is completely independent of driver control.
Other critics of the Tesla Autopilot are also beginning to call for significant changes. A United States Senator has recently urged Tesla to disable the Autopilot until it installs safeguards to prevent drivers from falling asleep. Private civil actions against Tesla may also produce additional information about the inherent safety of the company’s self-driving system.