NHTSA asks Tesla why it hasn’t initiated a recall after a security-related software program replace


A Tesla working in the vehicle’s driver assistance system known as an autopilot hit a police car in Michigan on March 17, 2021, officials said in a tweet.

Michigan State Police

A federal vehicle safety agency is asking Tesla to explain why it didn’t initiate a recall as needed when it released a safety-related software update to customers in September.

The update enabled Tesla vehicles to see emergency lights better in low-light conditions, according to a letter from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to Tesla posted on the government agency’s website on Wednesday.

Tesla’s Emergency Light Detection Update was delivered to customers’ cars via an over-the-air software update a few weeks after the NHTSA initiated an investigation into possible safety issues with Tesla Autopilot, the company’s standard driver assistance package.

Tesla also sells a premium version of its driver assistance system under the brand name FSD, or Full Self-Driving, for $ 10,000 upfront, or $ 199 per month. None of Tesla’s systems make its cars safe for use without a human driver at the wheel at all times. These are “Level 2” driver assistance systems, not fully autonomous vehicle technologies.

As previously reported by CNBC, the NHTSA identified around a dozen collisions in which Tesla drivers crashed into first-aiders’ vehicles while they were parked on the side of the road, usually at night or in the morning hours. In each of the incidents identified by the NHTSA, the Tesla drivers had activated autopilot or traffic-aware cruise control functions prior to the accident. One of the accidents resulted in a death.

NHTSA would like to know if autopilot defects or design issues contributed to or caused these crashes. And now they also want to know whether Tesla’s software update effectively served as a stealth recall.

If the agency considers the autopilot to be defective, it could initiate a recall and damage Tesla’s public image. Such a result could also lead to greater urgency in the assessment and regulation of driver assistance systems such as that from Tesla.

Currently, the NHTSA issues an annual New Car Assessment Program assessment of the crash safety of vehicles sold on the US NCAP assessment list, such as Tesla.

As part of its Tesla probe, NHTSA is evaluating comparable systems from 12 other automobile manufacturers.

Gregory Magno, head of vehicle defects at NHTSA, told Tesla’s Director of Field Quality Eddie Gates in the new letter that automakers are required to notify the NHTSA within five business days of any safety issues in their vehicles requiring repairs require.

Over-the-air software updates are covered by current federal recalls laws, Magno said.

The agency also asked Tesla for details about its expanding FSD beta program.

The program gives Tesla owners who are not safety drivers the opportunity to test Prerelease software and new driver assistance features on public roads in the United States.

Among other things, the NHTSA requested detailed records of how Tesla evaluates and selects participants in the experimental Early Access program.

In a separate “special order” that was shipped at the same time, NHTSA chief Ann Carson asked Tesla to produce copies of confidentiality and other agreements that vehicle owners had to sign in order to gain access to the FSD beta software.

As previously reported by CNBC, Tesla asked owners to sign an agreement on the Early Access program that contained various restrictions, such as a commitment to keep their “experience with the program confidential.”

Confidential information, as defined by Tesla in one version of the agreement, includes “the pre-release software and all information regarding the pre-release software (including its nature and existence, features, functionality and screenshots)” along with other information that Tesla will provide to FSD beta Attendees.

In her letter to Tesla’s Vice President of Legal Bill Berry, Ann Carson, NHTSA’s chief counsel, wrote: “The NHTSA is concerned that Tesla may have practices that could impede the agency’s access to security-related information.” This information could be relevant to the NHTSA investigation of Tesla vehicles that collide with emergency services vehicles.

Recently, Tesla significantly expanded its FSD beta program.

This month a “beta button” was added that any customer can use to request access to an FSD beta download. It has also released an insurance calculator that gives a “safety score” to drivers seeking FSD beta access.

Tesla owners who drove 100 or more miles in a week got access to the FSD beta this week, adding about 1,000 people to the program, according to CEO Elon Musk, who commented on the number at an annual shareholders meeting last week .

Vehicle safety advocates, including the National Transportation Safety Board, have urged the NHTSA to regulate systems like Tesla’s Autopilot, FSD, and FSD Beta sooner rather than later.

Tesla has until November 1 to provide the agency with the new information.

If the company fails to comply with the special order, the NHTSA warns it faces hefty fines of around $ 23,000 a day, with a maximum fine of around $ 115 million for a series of daily violations. If you evade the reporting obligation, those responsible at Tesla face up to 15 years in prison.

Regarding the new requests for information to Tesla posted on Wednesday, NHTSA said in a statement emailed to CNBC:

“Through these actions, the NHTSA continues to demonstrate its commitment to safety and its ongoing efforts to gather the information the agency needs to fulfill its role in the safety of everyone on the roads, even as technology advances. The NHTSA’s enforcement and deficiency powers are broad and We will act if we discover an unreasonable risk to public safety. “