The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced that it is investigating the cause of a “violent” Detroit Tesla crash.
Detroit Tesla Crash Involves Tractor-Trailer
The Detroit Tesla crash took place on March 11, 2021. According to an email from the Detroit Police Department, the incident occurred when a Tesla sedan operated by “an unknown male driver” struck a tractor-trailer and “became wedged under the trailer.” A passenger in the Tesla was reportedly in critical condition.
On March 15, the NHTSA said in a statement that it is “aware of the violent crash that occurred on March 11 in Detroit involving a Tesla and a tractor-trailer. We have launched a Special Crash Investigation team to investigate.”
The NHTSA has not yet said whether any of Tesla’s autonomous or “self-driving” technology may have contributed to the Detroit Tesla crash. However, the agency has previously conducted probes into over a dozen incidents that were thought to involve the company’s advanced driver assist systems. These systems include Tesla’s standard Autopilot package and a more advanced option marketed as Full Self-Driving (FSD). Some customers who purchase FSD also gain access to a “Beta” version to try newer features being added to the system before all bugs have been resolved.
Autopilot Subject of “Regulatory Scrutiny”
Tesla insists that its technology does not make its vehicles safe for operation without a driver at the wheel, and vehicles with Autopilot engaged have collided with large vehicles and objects like tractor-trailers on multiple occasions in the past, often in instances that are similar to the Detroit Tesla crash.
For example, in 2016, a Florida man named Joshua Brown died after crashing his Tesla Model S into a tractor-trailer while Autopilot was turned on. And on March 1, 2019, 50-year-old Jeremy Beren Banner died when his Tesla Model 3 struck the side of a semi-trailer in Florida while he was using Autopilot, resulting in the roof of his vehicle being sheared off as it passed underneath.
Because of incidents like these, Tesla’s Autopilot system has become the subject of regulatory scrutiny. On February 1, 2021, National Transportation Safety Board chief Robert Sumwalt sent a letter to the NHTSA calling for stronger federal requirements for the design and use of automated driving systems on public roads, specifically mentioning Tesla by name sixteen times.
“Tesla recently released a beta version of its Level 2 Autopilot system, described as having full self-driving capability,” wrote Sumwalt. “By releasing the system, Tesla is testing on public roads a highly automated AV technology but with limited oversight or reporting requirements. NHTSA’s hands-off approach to oversight of AV testing poses a potential risk to motorists and other road users.”
Distraction a Key Factor
Regulators have cited distraction as a key factor in accidents in which Tesla Autopilot was activated. Despite the software’s ability to perform such sophisticated actions as matching speed to traffic conditions, staying within lanes, automatically changing lanes without requiring driver input, transitioning between or exiting freeways, and self-parking, Autopilot still requires significant driver intervention on the road, meaning that the Tesla has not yet become a true self-driving car. Nevertheless, Tesla drivers often operate under the assumption that their vehicles are more autonomous than they really are, making them highly vulnerable to distraction, one of the leading causes of traffic accidents.
According to a study by Cambridge Mobile Telematics, 52 percent of crashes in the United States involve distracted driving. Far too frequently, drivers become so comfortable in their vehicles that they do not pay enough attention to the road, sometimes with deadly results. For this reason, Tesla’s use of Autopilot to combat distraction may in some ways encourage it.
Have You Been Injured by a Distracted Driver?
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