Tesla faces federal investigation

Tesla faces federal investigation

Elon Musk

Federal auto regulators announced Friday they are opening an investigation into the safety of Tesla’s Autopilot feature, less than a week after a Tesla driver believed to be using it allegedly struck and killed a motorcyclist in Monroe.

Jeffrey Nissen, 28, of Stanwood was on his way home from work on Highway 522 when the Tesla Model S struck his blue 2003 Yamaha R6, Nissen’s fiancée Janae Hutchinson said Thursday.

Washington State Patrol spokesperson Chris Loftis said the agency is still investigating whether the Tesla driver was using Autopilot — a combination of cruise control and Autosteer intended to maintain the car’s set speed while keeping a safe distance from other vehicles and in its driving lane. The crash was among a rising number of collisions in Washington involving cars equipped with the technology, mostly Teslas.

Washington saw 17 such crashes last year compared to 12 in 2022, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data. Of the 35 crashes in Washington involving Autopilot-equipped cars reported by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration between Sept. 1, 2021 and March 15, 2024, all but three were Teslas, according to the data.

Federal auto safety regulators on Thursday opened another investigation into Tesla’s recall of its Autopilot system last year, saying the company may not have done enough to keep drivers who use the technology focused on the road. The timing of the investigation and the fatal crash that killed Nissen are not necessarily linked.

The recall of over 2 million Teslas in the U.S. followed a two-year investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration into a series of crashes that happened while Autopilot was activated. Tesla released a software update in December for cars equipped with the system, adding more controls and alerts that would “encourage the driver to adhere to their continuous driving responsibility” while using Autosteer, a component of Autopilot.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Office of Defects Investigation said Tesla’s Autopilot system may still be inadequate. The agency identified at least 13 fatal crashes and 32 crashes resulting in injuries where Tesla drivers misused the system, according to a report released Thursday by the agency.

Representatives for Tesla did not respond to interview requests.

Elon Musk, the company’s chief executive officer, said in 2021 that Teslas on Autopilot were “approaching 10 times lower chance of accident than average” vehicles, citing federal and Tesla’s crash rates data.

According to Tesla’s website, Autopilot enhances safety while reducing a driver’s “overall workload,” and is “intended for use with a fully attentive driver, who has their hands on the wheel and is prepared to take over at any moment.”

But some drivers using Tesla’s Autopilot overestimate the system’s capabilities and pay less attention to driving, sometimes resulting in avoidable — and occasionally fatal — crashes, according to the report.

Hutchinson, the motorcyclist’s fiancée, argues Autopilot is marketed as making roads safer but actually makes drivers who use it less attentive and more dangerous, a sentiment echoed by some experts.

“It made me so angry that someone could feel so comfortable with their vehicle taking care of them and moving them through traffic that they would even be looking at their phone long enough for something like this to happen,” she said. “No matter what, you keep your eyes on the road.”

Ryan Calo, a University of Washington law professor who focuses on the intersection of law and robotics and artificial intelligence, said the system rests on an unrealistic assumption that drivers will stay focused on driving while using it.

“By calling it ‘Autopilot,’ and knowing what we all know, including Tesla, about human psychology, you should expect that people are going to do what this motorist did, which is cease to pay adequate attention to the road,” Calo said.

Drivers who aren’t keeping their eyes on the road may fail to notice safety risks that their car’s Autopilot technology also misses, Calo said. He pointed to a 2016 Florida crash where a Tesla’s Autopilot system failed to distinguish the side of a white tractor-trailer from the bright sky and didn’t activate the car’s brakes. The 40-year-old driver died after crashing into the truck.

Every crash resulting from a driver misusing Tesla’s Autopilot increases the company’s liability, said Steve Tapia, a law professor at Seattle University whose focuses include artificial intelligence.

“They’re putting these products out there and it’s becoming increasingly clear that there’s a problem,” Tapia said. “You can’t put something out into the world knowing full well that people are going to misuse it and then try to absolve yourself from responsibility.”

State law in Washington has been slow to keep up with rapid advances in technology like Autopilot and full self-driving capabilities, Tapia said.

Autonomous driving, or the operation of vehicles with no human involvement, is currently only legal for testing in Washington, and only three companies — NVIDIA Corporation, Waymo and Zoox — have certified with the state’s licensing department to do so, said Loftis, the Washington State Patrol spokesperson.

All drivers, regardless of whether they are using Autopilot, are required under Washington law to maintain control of their vehicle, Loftis said in an emailed response to questions.

“We all understand that just because a given car can attain high speeds, we do not then have the right to drive at excessive or unsafe speeds,” Loftis said. “Our laws govern our behavior even if a specific vehicle’s capacity offers options outside the law, safety, and courtesy.”

Washington State Patrol arrested the 56-year-old Snohomish man who allegedly crashed into Nissen, citing his “inattention to driving, while on autopilot mode, and the distraction of the cellphone” and his trust in “the machine to drive for him” as probable cause for a charge of vehicular homicide, according to a probable cause affidavit.

Troopers took into evidence a GoPro camera that had been attached to Nissen’s motorcycle helmet, the affidavit states.

The man was booked into the Snohomish County Jail and released April 21 after posting bond on his $100,000 bail, jail records show.

Hutchinson said the crash cut the couple’s dreams of one day having a child together.

Nissen and Hutchinson, 37, met over 20 years ago and got engaged last summer, she said. He was gentle and kind and loved exploring new beaches and trails, and was completing his second year of carpentry school.

Nissen was most excited about being a father figure to Hutchinson’s three sons, ages 8, 10 and 14. He taught the youngest how to ride a bike and coached her 10-year-old’s football team, Hutchinson said.

“We wanted to have children together, and he wanted nothing more than to be a dad — he was amazing to kids,” she said.

Hutchinson said she is considering filing a lawsuit against Tesla for failing to do enough to keep drivers using Autopilot focused on the road, in the hopes that Tesla and other electric vehicle companies will introduce safety features that could make a crash like the one that killed her fiancé less likely.

“I really do hope that if I’m just the tiniest little voice that brings this movement forward to bring a change, I want to say my fiancé didn’t die in vain,” Hutchinson said. “There’s going to be beauty that comes from these ashes.”

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