By Rebecca Elliott
Two U.S. senators have expressed concern about what they said
may be an emerging pattern of safety concerns involving Tesla Inc.
vehicles in the wake of a fatal crash in Texas.
In a letter Thursday to America's top automotive-safety
regulator, Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Sen. Ed
Markey of Massachusetts urged the agency to develop recommendations
for improving advanced driver-assistance systems such as Tesla's
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has opened a
probe into the weekend crash, one of more than two dozen
investigations it has launched into Tesla-involved crashes. The
agency has said that most of those investigations are related to
the vehicles' advanced driver-assistance features.
"We fear safety concerns involving these vehicles are becoming a
pattern, which is incredibly worrisome and deserves your undivided
attention," the Democratic senators wrote about Tesla in the
letter, which was viewed by The Wall Street Journal.
A Saturday crash involving a Tesla Model S has increased
scrutiny of the car maker's advanced driver-assistance system,
known as Autopilot, because the local constable has said that he
believed no one was in the driver's seat at the time of the
incident. One of the two men who died in the crash in a suburban
neighborhood north of Houston was found in the front passenger's
seat, the other in the back seat, local officials have said.
Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk said Monday that data recovered
so far showed Autopilot wasn't enabled. He didn't specify whether
that meant at the time of the crash or at any time during the
preceding drive. Tesla didn't respond to requests seeking
NHTSA had no immediate comment.
Rep. Kevin Brady (R., Texas), who represents the area where the
crash took place, on Thursday joined the growing chorus of
lawmakers seeking more information.
"I support progress that's being made and the development of new
technologies for autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles, but we
need answers to what happened," Mr. Brady, the top Republican
member on the House Ways and Means Committee, said on a call with
reporters. "I and those families deserve answers to ensure that as
companies are developing -- specifically Tesla -- these new
technologies, there is not a loss of innocent lives as we do
Another federal organization, the National Transportation Safety
Board, also has launched an investigation into the incident. The
board, which has the power to issue safety recommendations, has
said its review will focus on both the operation of the vehicle and
the postcrash fire, which local officials have said took hours to
extinguish. Batteries used in electric vehicles can reignite after
initial flames are put out, as this one did, said Palmer Buck,
chief of The Woodlands Fire Department, which responded to the
The senators' letter speaks to a tension that regulators face
with driver-assistance features such as collision warning or
adaptive cruise control. The technology can help make driving
safer, but also introduces new risks.
"While automated driving and driver assistance systems -- like
the Autopilot feature on Tesla cars -- can help prevent injurious
and fatal accidents, they must be implemented strategically and
safely," the lawmakers, who both sit on the Senate Committee on
Commerce, Science and Transportation, wrote.
Tesla says that driving with Autopilot enabled is safer than
driving without it. Hours before the Saturday crash, Mr. Musk
tweeted: "Tesla with Autopilot engaged now approaching 10 times
lower chance of accident than average vehicle."
NHTSA doesn't have any rules in place specifying how companies
must go about ensuring that drivers are paying attention while
driver-assistance systems are engaged. The NTSB has said that lack
of regulation puts people at risk.
The Texas crash has left questions about whether or how the
vehicle could have been operating without anyone in the driver's
Tesla has said that drivers using Autopilot must remain
attentive with their hands on the wheel and that it has safety
features, including aural and visual alerts, to remind them to stay
Consumer Reports on Thursday said it had done tests this week in
which it was able to get a different Tesla model's Autopilot to
operate without anyone in the driver's seat. The vehicle, which
uses steering-wheel inputs to assess driver attention, didn't send
any warnings about an empty driver's seat, Consumer Reports said.
The organization attached a weight to a Model Y's steering wheel to
simulate a hand during the testing.
"I was really shocked how easy it was to do it," said Jake
Fisher, the group's senior director of auto testing, one of the
people involved in the test-track experiment. "When you have an
automation system like that which explicitly needs a driver to be
ready to take over at any time, you have to make sure that someone
is actually engaged."
Tesla didn't respond to a request for comment on the Consumer
Write to Rebecca Elliott at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
April 22, 2021 14:55 ET (18:55 GMT)
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