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Tesla Autopilot Probe ‘Will Take Us Where It Takes Us,’ NHTSA Chief Says

Bloomberg logo Bloomberg 6/29/2022 Keith Laing

(Bloomberg) -- The new head of the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said an investigation into whether Tesla Inc.’s Autopilot is defective “will take us where it takes us,” leaving open the possibility that authorities could take action to rein in the carmaker’s signature technology.

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The agency this month upgraded a preliminary probe over how Autopilot handles crash scenes with first-responder vehicles. Since opening the inquiry about 10 months ago, NHTSA has reviewed a broader set of collisions.

“We want to get it right,” Administrator Steven Cliff said in an interview Wednesday. “We want to make sure that when we’re doing an investigation, that we’re learning information that will help us identify unreasonable risks to safety and then taking the appropriate action as a result. I can’t say where this ultimately will go.”

Read more: Tesla Autopilot Defect Probe Spirals as US Reviews 191 Crashes

In about 50 of the 191 crashes NHTSA has examined in the Autopilot inquiry, it found drivers were insufficiently responsive to the driving task. The primary factor in roughly two dozen others appears to be drivers using the system in environments and conditions where the technology runs up against limitations, such as inclement weather.

Video: Tesla Lays Off Hundreds of Autopilot Employees (Bloomberg)

Upgrading the probe to an engineering analysis “allows us to get a little more hands-on with technology,” Cliff said.

NHTSA issued a record number of recalls in 2021 across all auto manufacturers, accumulating a total of 1,093, including several that were related to Tesla vehicles, he noted.

Tesla’s staff has largely been cooperative with the Autopilot investigation and other recalls, he said, despite combative tweets from Tesla Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk like one that derided NHTSA as the “fun police.”

“Of course, we’re the regulator and they understand that,” Cliff said. “They’re responsive. We work well with them. And my team assures me that when they’re talking to them about issues, they’re getting information and able to get their get their questions answered.” 

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