The car screen shows obstacles and tracks the vehicle’s movements. (Liam Harrap/Revelstoke Review)

The car screen shows obstacles and tracks the vehicle’s movements. (Liam Harrap/Revelstoke Review)

Crash, arrest draw more scrutiny of Tesla Autopilot system

Tesla’s partially automated driving system has been involved in multiple crashes that have resulted in at least 3 U.S. deaths

Federal safety regulators are sending a team to California to investigate a fatal freeway crash involving a Tesla, just after authorities near Oakland arrested a man in another Tesla rolling down a freeway with no one behind the steering wheel.

Experts say both cases raise pressure on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to take action on Tesla’s partially automated driving system called Autopilot, which has been involved in multiple crashes that have resulted in at least three U.S. deaths.

The probe of the May 5 crash in Fontana, California, east of Los Angeles, is the 29th case involving a Tesla that the agency has responded to. Local media reported that the male Tesla driver was killed and two other men were seriously injured when the electric car struck an overturned semi on a freeway. It wasn’t clear whether the Tesla was operating on Autopilot or Tesla’s “Full Self-Driving” system.

“We have launched a Special Crash Investigation for this crash. NHTSA remains vigilant in overseeing the safety of all motor vehicles and equipment, including automated technologies,” the agency said in a statement Wednesday.

The investigation comes just after the California Highway Patrol arrested another man who authorities say was in the back seat of a Tesla that was riding down Interstate 80 with no one behind the wheel.

Param Sharma, 25, is accused of reckless driving and disobeying a peace officer, the CHP said in a statement Tuesday.

The statement did not say if officials have determined whether the Tesla was operating on Autopilot, which can keep a car centered in its lane and a safe distance behind vehicles in front of it.

But it’s likely that either Autopilot or “Full Self-Driving” were in operation for the driver to be in the back seat. Tesla is allowing a limited number of owners to test its self-driving system.

Tesla, which has disbanded its public relations department, did not respond to messages seeking comment Wednesday.

The Fontana investigation, in addition to probes of two crashes in Michigan from earlier this year, show that NHTSA is taking a closer look at the Tesla systems.

Experts say that the agency needs to rein in such systems because people tend to trust them too much when they cannot drive themselves.

Tesla says on its website and in owners manuals that for both driver-assist systems, drivers must be ready to intervene at any time. But drivers have repeatedly zoned out with Autopilot in use, resulting in crashes in which neither the system nor the driver stopped for obstacles in the road.

Experts say the arrest and the latest investigation are signs that NHTSA is taking a closer look at automated systems, specifically those in Teslas.

“I think they very likely are getting serious about this, and we may actually start to see some action in the not-too-distant future,” said Sam Abuelsamid, principal mobility analyst for Guidehouse Insights who follows automated systems.

“I definitely think that the increasing number of incidents is adding more fuel to the fire for NHTSA to do more,” said Missy Cummings, an electrical and computer engineering professor at Duke University who studies automated vehicles. “I do think they are going to be stronger about this.”

The agency could declare Autopilot defective and require it to be recalled, or it could force Tesla to limit areas where Autopilot can be used to limited-access freeways. It could also make the company install a stronger system to ensure drivers are paying attention.

The auto industry, except for Tesla, already does a good job of limiting where such systems can operate, and is moving to self-regulate, Cummings said. Tesla seems to be heading that way. It’s now installing driver-facing cameras on recent models, she said.

Tesla has a system to monitor drivers to make sure they’re paying attention by detecting force from hands on the steering wheel.

The system will issue warnings and eventually shut the car down if it doesn’t detect hands. But critics have said Tesla’s system is easy to fool and can take as long as a minute to shut down. Consumer Reports said in April that it was able to trick a Tesla into driving in Autopilot mode with no one at the wheel.

In March, a Tesla official also told California regulators that “Full Self-Driving” was a driver-assist system that requires monitoring by humans. In notes released by the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles, the company couldn’t say whether Tesla’s technology would improve to fully self driving by the end of the year, contrary to statements made by company CEO Elon Musk.

In the back-seat driving case, authorities got multiple 911 calls Monday evening that a person was in the back of Tesla Model 3 while the vehicle traveled on Interstate 80 across the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.

A motorcycle officer spotted the Tesla, confirmed the solo occupant was in the back seat, took action to stop the car and saw the occupant move to the driver’s seat before the car stopped, said the statement from the highway patrol, known as CHP.

Authorities said they cited Sharma on April 27 for similar behavior.

In an interview with The Associated Press Wednesday, Sharma said he did nothing wrong, and he’ll keep riding in the back seat with no one behind the steering wheel.

Musk wants him to keep doing this, he said. “It was actually designed to be ridden in the back seat,” Sharma said. “I feel safer in the back seat than I do in the driver’s seat, and I feel safer with my car on Autopilot, I trust my car Autopilot more than I trust everyone on the road.”

He believes his Model 3 can drive itself, and doesn’t understand why he had to spend a night in jail.

“The way where we stand right now, I can launch a self-driving Tesla from Emeryville all the way to downtown San Francisco from the back seat,” he said, adding that he has gone about 40,000 miles in Tesla vehicles without being in the driver’s seat.

Sharma’s comments suggest he is among a number of Tesla drivers who rely too much on the company’s driving systems, Duke’s Cummings said.

“It’s showing people the thought process behind people who have way too much trust in a very unproven technology,” she said.

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

Tesla

Just Posted

Joseph Albert Brooks, 94-years-young pf Prince Rupert offers traditional prayers and smudging to the sick. (Photo: K-J Millar/The Northern View)
Heart of our City: Joseph Albert Brooks keeps smudging and praying for others

94-year-old Tsimshian elder just wants some help washing his floors

Land along Prince Rupert’s waterfront, PID 012-247-391, where residents say excessive industrial train noise is stemming from, has been found to be owned by the City of Prince Rupert and is not federal land like first presented, Prince Rupert Environmental Society stated on June 17. (Image: supplied by Land Title and Survey, Govt. of BC.)
Error found on land titles map may assist city with noise control enforcement of industry

Prince Rupert residents had been told there was no municipal jurisdiction to enforce noise bylaws

Department of Oceans and Fisheries has announced as of July 19 chinook salmon is not to be fished in certain areas in BC tidal waters until July. Spring chinook salmon are seen swimming. (Photo courtesy Michael Humling, US Fish & Wildlife Service)
Chinook Salmon limits set to zero in some BC tidal waters

DFO implement restrictions to protect Chinook Salmon

Visitors to a pop-up temporary aquarium in Prince Rupert will have the chance to see marine ecology from July 21 to Aug. 15, like this viewer watching sea anemones at the Ripley’s Aquarium in Toronto. (Photo: K-J Millar/The Northern View)
Prince Rupert pop-up aquarium will bring sea level to eye level in July

A permanent peak to reef ecology centre is in the planning stages by North Coast Ecology Society

Prince Rupert’s Ellen Wright and Graeme Dickens jam out during filming the two Ring System Studio concerts to be broadcast on television during June. (Photo: supplied, H. Cox)
Ring System Studio sounds on television

Two concerts by the Prince Rupert music school will be broadcast in June

Marco Mendicino, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship during a press conference in Ottawa on Thursday, May 13, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Canada to welcome 45,000 refugees this year, says immigration minister

Canada plans to increase persons admitted from 23,500 to 45,000 and expedite permanent residency applications

Blair Lebsack, owner of RGE RD restaurant, poses for a portrait in the dining room, in Edmonton, Friday, June 18, 2021. Canadian restaurants are having to find ways to deal with the rising cost of food. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Canadian restaurateurs grapple with rising food costs, menu prices expected to rise

Restaurants are a low margin industry, so there’s not a lot of room to work in additional costs

RCMP crest. (Black Press Media files)
Fort St. John man arrested after allegedly inviting sexual touching from children

Two children reported the incident to a trusted adult right away

Barbara Violo, pharmacist and owner of The Junction Chemist Pharmacy, draws up a dose behind vials of both Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines on the counter, in Toronto, Friday, June 18, 2021. An independent vaccine tracker website founded by a University of Saskatchewan student says just over 20 per cent of eligible Canadians — those 12 years old and above — are now fully vaccinated. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
At least 20% of eligible Canadians fully vaccinated, 75% with one dose: data

Earlier projections for reopening at this milestone didn’t include Delta variant

This undated file photo provided by Ernie Carswell & Partners shows the home featured in the opening and closing scenes of The Brady Bunch in Los Angeles. Do you know the occupation of Mike Brady, the father in this show about a blended family? (Anthony Barcelo/Ernie Carswell & Partners via AP, File)
QUIZ: A celebration of dad on Father’s Day

How much do you know about famous fathers?

Emily Steele holds up a collage of her son, 16-year-old Elijah-Iain Beauregard who was stabbed and killed in June 2019, outside of Kelowna Law Courts on June 18. (Aaron Hemens/Capital News)
Kelowna woman who fatally stabbed teen facing up to 1.5 years of jail time

Her jail sentence would be followed by an additional one to 1.5 years of supervision

Cpl. Scott MacLeod and Police Service Dog Jago. Jago was killed in the line of duty on Thursday, June 17. (RCMP)
Abbotsford police, RCMP grieve 4-year-old service dog killed in line of duty

Jago killed by armed suspect during ‘high-risk’ incident in Alberta

The George Road wildfire near Lytton, B.C., has grown to 250 hectares. (BC Wildfire Service)
B.C. drone sighting halts helicopters fighting 250 hectares of wildfire

‘If a drone collides with firefighting aircraft the consequences could be deadly,’ says BC Wildfire Service

A dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is pictured at a vaccination site in Vancouver Thursday, March 11, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
NACI advice to mix vaccines gets varied reaction from AstraZeneca double-dosers

NACI recommends an mRNA vaccine for all Canadians receiving a second dose of a COVID-19 vaccine

Most Read