US Auto Regulator Investigates Tesla's Latest Recall

21-05-2024 | By Robin Mitchell

While there are many who praise the efforts of Tesla, the numerous recalls that it has seen over its vehicles lead many to wonder whether or not Tesla is on its last legs. Now that a further 2 million vehicles have been recalled, the US auto regulator is stepping in to launch a safety analysis of Tesla's vehicles and how technology is affecting drivers. What challenges do self-driving vehicles face, what exactly is the regulator probing, and could this be the downfall of Tesla and self-driving vehicles in general?

Key Things to Know:

  • The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has launched an in-depth investigation into Tesla's Autopilot system due to numerous crashes involving the technology.
  • Tesla's recent recall of over 2 million vehicles aims to address safety concerns, but the effectiveness of these fixes remains under scrutiny.
  • Autonomous driving technology faces significant challenges, including the ability to accurately detect obstacles and respond appropriately in various driving conditions.
  • False advertising of self-driving capabilities can erode consumer trust and hinder the development of truly autonomous vehicles in the future.

Challenges in Implementing Self-Driving Vehicles

As technology continues to rapidly advance, the automotive industry has undergone a transformation unlike anything ever seen. What was once an industry dominated by manual transmissions and mechanical parts has now introduced advanced features such as adaptive cruise control, lane detection, and automated emergency braking. One technological development that has slowly been gaining popularity is the idea of vehicles being able to drive themselves autonomously, also known as self-driving vehicles.

While the idea of a self-driving vehicle may sound like a dream come true for many, there are numerous challenges faced by companies trying to develop and implement this technology. Current self-driving solutions being developed are plagued with issues, and companies are often testing their systems on limited roads with little variation. For example, Tesla vehicles have been equipped with "auto-pilot" features that can drive the vehicle itself, but while this has proven to be mostly reliable on straight roads, its performance on curved roads and during inclement weather has been lacklustre. Other companies, such as Waymo, are exploring the use of larger vehicles with human drivers as a safety net, but even these vehicles are restricted to designated roads.

When it comes to safety, regulators are understandably hesitant to allow self-driving vehicles on the road. Despite having been involved in fewer traffic incidents than humans (according to Tesla), a self-driving vehicle that is involved in an incident is far more likely to injure or kill others as a result of not behaving like a human driver. For example, a self-driving vehicle may not appreciate the dangers of pedestrians crossing the road or not understand that vehicles have the right of way at junctions. To make matters worse, a self-driving vehicle that is involved in an incident may not be held responsible for any damages, with the manufacturer of the vehicle being under no obligation to publish the incident.

Overall, self-driving vehicles face a wide range of issues that make their development and implementation extremely challenging. From power sources to road testing and safety concerns to regulatory bodies, it is clear that self-driving vehicles are far from being a reality.

Understanding the Regulator's Investigative Focus

As the world becomes increasingly more concerned with autonomous driving, Tesla has made numerous promises in this area. From its foundation, Elon Musk, the eccentric and somewhat arrogant owner of Tesla, has talked about how Tesla will be the world's first truly autonomous cars through its use of "auto pilot". 

While the general public would be easily fooled by such a name, those in the industry know that no car on the planet is near to being truly autonomous. Sure, there are vehicles that can park themselves, and some can even drive to a destination, but none can be said to be fully autonomous. Of course, there are those (such as Elon Musk) who believe that they are already fully autonomous and that all other car manufacturers are simply not up to date. 

Tesla's Autonomous Driving Capabilities Under Scrutiny

To try and prove its capabilities, Tesla has been conducting numerous tests and gathering data from its customers on their experiences with the auto pilot mode. And while some may be impressed with the results, most (including the US traffic safety board)have expressed their deep concerns with the system.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has been closely monitoring Tesla's Autopilot system. According to a detailed report released by NHTSA, there have been numerous incidents where the system failed to detect stationary vehicles, leading to collisions. The report highlights that Tesla's reliance on driver engagement warnings is not sufficient to prevent these accidents, calling for more robust safety measures and system enhancements.

One such example of a Tesla crash occurred in 2018, where a Tesla Model X, operating on autopilot, killed an Apple engineer, Walter Huang, after its collision with a highway barrier. While Tesla initially stated that the crash was caused by the driver having their hands off the wheel, it has now agreed to settle the lawsuit out of court.

Ongoing Concerns Post-Recall: Tesla's Autopilot System Reevaluated

Now, Tesla is facing another challenge from the US traffic safety board who is now investigating whether the recent recall has fixed the auto pilot issue. In December 2023, Tesla issued a software update that fixed problems relating to its auto pilot mode, but the traffic safety board is now concerned that this fix may not have worked.

In the document titled "Engineering Analysis Report" by NHTSA, it is revealed that the recent software update by Tesla may not fully address the underlying issues with the Autopilot system. The investigation found that while the update aims to improve obstacle detection and response times, it does not entirely mitigate the risks posed by Autopilot's current design limitations. This ongoing scrutiny by regulators underscores the need for continuous improvements in self-driving technology to meet safety standards.

To make matters even more desperate for Tesla, recent sales figures have shown a dramatic fall in orders for new vehicles, and the company is now considering furloughs and other cost-cutting measures. To try and improve its image, Elon Musk recently said that Tesla should no longer be thought of as an automobile company but as a technology company and that new electric vehicle models will be launched sooner rather than later. Of course, this is the same man who has time and time again promised numerous feats (such as hyperloop, Mars missions, tunnels, and solar roofs) and is yet to deliver on a single promise.  

The NHTSA report further emphasises that the safety of autonomous vehicles like Tesla's is paramount, especially as these technologies are gradually integrated into everyday use. The investigation into Tesla's Autopilot is part of a broader effort to establish stringent safety protocols and regulatory frameworks to protect consumers and ensure that autonomous driving technologies can operate reliably and safely on public roads.

The Challenges of Self-Driving Technology: A Threat to Tesla's Future?

As the technology continues to unfold, it is clear that the future of autonomous vehicles is at risk due to the increasing number of false and misleading advertisements claiming to have self-driving vehicles in operation. Companies such as Tesla have capitalised on the publics lack of understanding in autonomous driving systems and have created a false sense of security for customers. 

While the public continues to be misinformed, safety regulations and standards in the automotive industry are also affected. If companies such as Tesla are allowed to continue advertising their vehicles with self-driving capabilities, it will not only hurt sales for competitor companies but also lead to a relaxation in safety standards. 

For example, a vehicle that requires a driver to hold the wheel and be alert at all times is considered an "assistive feature" and not a self-driving system, and as such, is not subjected to the same safety regulations. But, if a vehicle with a driver at the wheel is being marketed as a self-driving system, then it must follow the same safety regulations as a robot with people inside. 

Consumer trust in self-driving features is also significantly impacted by false advertisements of companies like Tesla. When customers find out the truth regarding self-driving vehicles, they will lose trust in the automotive industry as a whole, and this will make it harder for companies to introduce true self-driving features in the future.

Technological advancements and innovations in vehicle automation will also be impacted by the hype surrounding Tesla and other self-driving vehicles. When companies make false claims and take advantage of consumer ignorance, it can hinder the development of actual technological advancements. For example, customers who purchase Tesla vehicles expecting full self-driving capabilities will be disappointed, and this will make it harder for companies like Waymo to introduce full self-driving systems to the public.

Overall, the impact of Tesla's false advertising of its self-driving features will be devastating for the automotive industry, and it is up to regulators and authorities to step in and stop companies from making such claims. If not addressed immediately, the automotive industry could see a major collapse in consumer trust, safety standards, and technological advancements in vehicle automation.


By Robin Mitchell

Robin Mitchell is an electronic engineer who has been involved in electronics since the age of 13. After completing a BEng at the University of Warwick, Robin moved into the field of online content creation, developing articles, news pieces, and projects aimed at professionals and makers alike. Currently, Robin runs a small electronics business, MitchElectronics, which produces educational kits and resources.