Two crashes involving Tesla operating on Autopilot are under investigation by federal regulators. The U.S. Points to potential new danger on freeways: partially automated vehicles may not stop for motorcycles.
Last month, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration sent investigation teams into two accidents in which Teslas collided with motorcycles on a freeway in the dark. Both were fatal.
The agency suspects that Tesla’s partially automated driver-assistance system was used in each. The agency says once it gathers more information, it could include accidents in a broader investigation into Tesla’s striking emergency vehicles parked along freeways. NHTSA also investigates more than 750 complaints that Teslas may brake for no reason.
The first motorcyclist accident occurred on July 7 at 4:47 a.m. on State Route 91, a freeway in Riverside, California. A white Tesla Model Y SUV was travelling east in the high occupancy vehicle lane. The California Highway Patrol said in a statement that earlier there was a green Yamaha V-Star motorcycle.
A CHP spokesman said that whether or not Tesla was operating on Autopilot remains under investigation.
The second crash happened at about 1:09 a.m. July 24 on Interstate 15 near Draper, Utah. A Tesla Model 3 sedan was behind a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, also in an HOV lane. “The driver of the Tesla did not see the motorcyclist and collided with the back of the motorcycle, which threw 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 statement said the Tesla driver told authorities that he had the vehicle’s Autopilot setting on.
Michael Brooks, acting executive director of the nonprofit Center for Auto Safety, called on NHTSA to recall Tesla’s Autopilot because it is not recognizing motorcyclists, emergency vehicles or pedestrians.
“It’s pretty clear to me, and it should be to a lot of Tesla owners by now, this stuff isn’t working properly, and it’s not going to live up to the expectations, and it is putting innocent people in danger on the roads,” Brooks said.
Since 2016, NHTSA has sent teams to 39 crashes in which automated driving systems are suspected of being in use, according to agency documents. Of those, 30 involved Teslas, including crashes that caused 19 deaths.
Brooks criticized the agency for continuing to investigate but not taking action. “What the Hell are they doing while these crashes continue?” he asked. “Drivers are being lured into thinking this protects them and others on the roads, and it’s just not working.”
Tesla CEO Elon 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 hurts vision in the darkness.
Tesla’s Autopilot keeps cars in their lane and far behind other vehicles. The company also uses selected owners to test “Full Self-Driving” software, designed to complete a route independently with human supervision. Eventually, Musk says the cars will drive themselves, enabling a fleet of autonomous robotaxis that will boost Tesla’s earnings. In 2019, Musk pledged to have the robot axis running 2020.