Transport watchdog's patience wears thin as Tesla Autopilot remedies may not be enough

Crashes continue even with recall fixes in place

The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has written to Tesla as the automaker's electric cars keep crashing despite a recall to fix problems with the Autopilot software.

The NHTSA opened a recall query to investigate the remedy's effectiveness for the earlier recall in December, which affected more than two million Teslas and followed an NHTSA investigation into nearly a thousand incidents where Autopilot was alleged to have been in use.

In formal communication [PDF] sent to Eddie Gates, Tesla's Director for Field Quality, the NHTSA detailed the five-part remedy implemented by Tesla as part of the December recall. The changes included increasing driver attentiveness requirements, adding an Autopilot suspension period for drivers who receive several forced Autopilot disengagements, and enlarging the attentiveness notification.

However, the Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) reckons that Tesla's remedy has problems and has identified 20 crashes in vehicles with the update installed. Nine of these crashes were "frontal plane," which includes the scenario "person in travel path." This seems to imply that Teslas are not great at spotting when a person is in front of them.

According to the NHTSA, it was "unable to identify a difference in the initiation of the driver warning cascade between pre-remedy and post-remedy (camera obscured) conditions." It also noted that one of the fixes in the recall remedy – a single pull activation option for Autopilot – was not enabled by default and required the customer to hunt through the settings to switch it on.

The function means that inadvertent steering will disengage Autopilot and cause a "pronounced" slowdown to alert the driver that Autopilot is off and they must resume control.

As well as not being enabled by default, customers can also easily turn it on and off.

Ultimately, despite the changes implemented as part of the recall remedy, the NHTSA wants more information on the system and crashes that have occurred when the system was engaged, as well as a list of company personnel involved in it.

Tesla is expected to respond by July 1. Failure to do so could result in $135 million in fines. ®

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