Two crashes involving Teslas seemingly running on Autopilot are under scrutiny by federal regulators and point to a potential new danger on US highways: The partially automated vehicles may not stop for motorcycles. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration sent investigation teams last month into two crashes in which Teslas collided with motorcycles on highways after dark. Both were deadly.
The agency suspects that Tesla’s partially automated driver assistance system was in use in each of them. The agency says that once it gathers more information, it can record the crashes in a wider probe of Tesla’s high-profile emergency vehicles parked along highways. NHTSA is also investigating more than 750 complaints that Teslas can brake for no reason.
The first accident involving a motorcyclist occurred on July 7 at 4:47 a.m. on State Route 91, a highway in Riverside, California. A white Tesla Model Y SUV drove east in the high-occupancy lane. Ahead was a rider on a green Yamaha V-Star motorcycle, the California Highway Patrol said in a statement.
At one point, the vehicles collided and the unidentified motorcyclist was ejected from the Yamaha. He was pronounced dead at the scene by firefighters.
Whether or not the Tesla worked on Autopilot is still under investigation, a CHP spokesperson said.
The second crash occurred at about 1:09 am on July 24 on Interstate 15 near Draper, Utah. A Tesla Model 3 sedan stood behind a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, also in an HOV lane. “The driver of the Tesla failed to see the motorcyclist and collided with the rear of the motorcycle, throwing the rider from the bike,” the Utah Department of Public Safety said in a prepared statement.
The rider, identified as Landon Embry, 34, of Orem, Utah, died at the scene. The Tesla driver told authorities he had turned on the vehicle’s Autopilot setting, the statement said.
Michael Brooks, acting executive director of the nonprofit Automotive Safety Center, called on NHTSA to recall Tesla’s Autopilot for failing to recognize motorcyclists, emergency responders, or pedestrians.
“It’s pretty clear to me, and it should be for a lot of Tesla owners by now, this stuff doesn’t work well and it won’t live up to expectations, and it puts innocent people at risk on the roads.” Brooks said.
Since 2016, the NHTSA has sent teams to 39 accidents where automated driving systems are suspected to be in use, according to agency documents. Of those, 30 were involved in Teslas, including crashes that killed 19.
Brooks criticized the agency for continuing to investigate, but not taking any action. “What the hell are they doing as these accidents keep happening?” he asked. “Drivers are tempted to think this protects them and others on the road, and it just doesn’t work.”
Musk has eliminated the use of radar from his systems and relies solely on cameras and computer memory. Brooks and other safety advocates say the lack of radar impairs visibility in the dark.
Messages were left seeking comment from Tesla, which has dissolved its media relations department.
Tesla has said Autopilot and “Full Self-Driving” cannot drive themselves and drivers must be ready to intervene at all times.
In an interview in June, new NHTSA administrator Steven Cliff said the agency is stepping up its efforts to understand the risks of automated vehicles so it can decide what regulations might be needed to protect drivers, passengers and pedestrians. There are no federal regulations that directly apply to self-driving vehicles or vehicles with partially automated driver assistance systems such as Autopilot.
The agency also says the technology holds great promise in reducing traffic accidents.
NHTSA has also instructed all automakers and technology companies with automated driving systems to report all crashes. The agency released the first batch of data in June showing nearly 400 crashes reported over a 10-month period, including 273 involving Teslas. But it warned against making comparisons, saying Tesla’s telematics allows it to collect data in real time, much faster than other companies.
Tesla’s Autopilot keeps cars in their lane and at a distance behind other vehicles. The company also uses select owners to test “Full Self-Driving” software, which is designed to navigate a route independently under human supervision. Ultimately, Tesla CEO Elon Musk says the cars will drive themselves, enabling a fleet of autonomous robotic axes that will boost Tesla’s revenues. In 2019, Musk had promised to run the robo-taxis by 2020.
He said at the company’s annual shareholders meeting Thursday that “Full Self-Driving” has been greatly improved, and he expects the software to be available to all owners who request it by the end of the year.