TOM KREISHER | Associated Press
DETROIT. US security investigators want to know why Tesla did not file for recall when it updated its Autopilot software to better identify parked emergency vehicles, leading to escalating conflict between the automaker and regulators.
In a letter to Tesla, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration told the electric vehicle maker on Tuesday that it must recall the vehicles if an online update fixes the security flaw.
“Any manufacturer issuing a wireless update that fixes a defect that poses an unreasonable risk to vehicle safety must submit an accompanying withdrawal notice to NHTSA in a timely manner,” the agency said in a letter to Eddie Gates, Tesla’s director. the quality of the field.
The agency also ordered Tesla to provide information on its Total Self-Government software, which is being tested on public roads with some owners.
The latest clash is another sign of heightening tensions between Tesla and the agency that regulates partially automated driving systems.
In August, the agency launched an investigation into Tesla’s autopilot after receiving several reports of vehicles crashing into emergency vehicles with flashing warning lights that were stopped on highways.
The letter was posted on the NHTSA website early Wednesday morning. A message was left on Wednesday asking for comment from Tesla, which has disbanded its media relations department.
NHTSA began an official investigation of the autopilot in August after a series of collisions with parked ambulances. The investigation covers 765,000 vehicles, nearly all that Tesla has sold in the US since the beginning of the 2014 model year. Of the dozen accidents identified during the investigation, 17 people were injured and one died.
Tesla at the end of September updated its software over the Internet to improve detection of vehicle hazard lights in low light conditions, according to the agency. The agency says Tesla is aware that federal law requires automakers to issue a recall if they find that vehicles or equipment have safety defects.
The agency has requested information about Tesla’s “Emergency Light Detection Update” that has been sent to certain vehicles “with the stated purpose of detecting flashing emergency lights of vehicles in low light conditions, and then responding to said detection with driver warnings and vehicle speed changes while Autopilot is on. “.
The letter asks for a list of events that motivated the software update, as well as what vehicles it was sent to and whether the measures apply to the entire Tesla fleet.
He also asks the Palo Alto, Calif. Company if it intends to file a recall. “If not, please provide technical and / or legal grounds for Tesla’s refusal to do so,” the agency asks.
Philip Koopman, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, said NHTSA clearly wants Tesla to withdraw it. “They’re giving Tesla a voice before they break the hammer,” said Koopman, who studies the safety of automated vehicles.
When automakers become aware of a safety defect, they must report it to NHTSA within five business days and withdraw it. NHTSA monitors recalls to make sure they apply to all vehicles affected, and automakers are working hard to contact all owners. Car manufacturers are required to notify all owners by letters explaining the repairs to be carried out at the expense of the car manufacturer.
A public recall allows owners to make sure that a repair is done and people buying cars are aware of potential safety issues.
The NHTSA action is warning all car manufacturers to inform the agency when they update software over the Internet if they fix a security flaw. This is another new technology that the agency has to deal with as numerous automakers are following Tesla with the power of software for the web.
“Now every company is at risk every time it updates over the air, because NHTSA could come back in a few weeks and say, ‘Wait, that was a hidden recall,’ Koopman said.
Tesla must comply with the request by November 1, or face more than $ 114 million in legal action and civil fines, the agency said.
In a separate special order to Tesla, NHTSA says the company may be taking steps to prevent the agency from accessing safety information by requiring drivers who test Full Self-Driving software to sign nondisclosure agreements.
The order requires Tesla to describe nondisclosure agreements and how they are signed by Tesla drivers. The company should also say if Tesla requires owners of vehicles equipped with autopilot to agree “to any conditions that would prevent vehicle owners from sharing information or discussing any aspect of autopilot with anyone other than Tesla.”
The answer must be given under oath by a Tesla employee. If Tesla does not comply with all requirements, the order states that the case can be referred to the Justice Department for legal action with the aim of a forced response. It also faces more than $ 114 million in additional fines.
Tesla said that neither cars equipped with the Full Self-Drive feature nor autopilot can drive themselves. He warns drivers to be ready to intervene at any time.
It was unclear how Tesla and Mercurial chief executive Elon Musk would respond to NHTSA’s demands. The company and Musk have a long history of sparring with federal regulators.
In January, Tesla rejected NHTSA’s request to recall about 135,000 vehicles because their touchscreens could go black. The agency said the screens are a safety defect, as the rear-view cameras and windshield heater controls can be disabled.
A month later, after the NHTSA began the process of holding public hearings and filing a lawsuit against Tesla, the company agreed to the withdrawal. Tesla said it would replace computer processors with screens, although it said there was no security threat.
Musk fought the SEC over a 2018 tweet claiming he had funding to make Tesla private when that funding was not secured. He and the company agreed to pay $ 20 million each to settle charges that he misled investors. Later, the Securities and Exchange Commission tried to accuse Musk of contempt of court for tweeting an incorrect prediction of how many cars Tesla would produce. Musk branded the SEC as a “short seller enrichment commission,” misrepresenting the acronym. Short sellers are betting that the stock price will fall.
The new requirements from NHTSA signal President Joe Biden’s stricter regulatory stance on the safety of automated vehicles than previous administrations. The agency appears to have been reluctant to regulate the new technology for fear of discouraging the introduction of potentially life-saving systems.
The National Transportation Safety Board, which also investigated some of Tesla’s 2016 accidents, recommended that NHTSA and Tesla restrict autopilot use to areas in which it can operate safely. The NTSB also recommended NHTSA to demand from Tesla a better system to ensure driver attention. The NTSB has no enforcement powers and can only make recommendations to other federal agencies.