Tesla drivers too reliant on Autopilot are most likely to crash

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NHTSA probe concludes the technology can’t drive a car by itself

A federal investigation has found that drivers using Tesla’s driver assist features have had hundreds of auto accidents, resulting in dozens of deaths.

The report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) examined hundreds of accident reports and concluded there was one main reason for all of the accidents – the drivers were putting too much faith in the technology and weren’t paying enough attention to the road.

“Throughout the [two] investigations, ODI (Office of Defects Investigation) observed a trend of avoidable crashes involving hazards that would have been visible to an attentive driver,” the report’s authors wrote. “Before August 2023, ODI reviewed 956 total crashes where Autopilot was initially alleged to have been in use at the time of, or leading up to, those crashes.”

NHTSA said it investigated 956 crashes, from January 2018 to August 2023. Twenty-nine people died in those accidents. The investigation also highlighted 211 crashes in which “the frontal plane of the Tesla struck a vehicle or obstacle in its path.” 

Tesla has two main driver assist features, Autopilot and the more advanced Full Self Driving mode. Neither, the investigators said, is currently sufficient to drive the car without the attention of a driver.

Driver complacency

When the Tesla Autopilot investigation began, ODI expressed concern about how drivers engage with the technology. In June 2022, the agency said the investigation would be an “upgrade” to the preliminary investigation it undertook the previous year. It's framed the investigation as an “engineering analysis,” which is a step taken before the agency determines if a recall is necessary.

In this latest report, NHTSA investigators concluded that Autopilot is simply not designed to keep the driver engaged in driving the vehicle. Some accident reports reported cases of drivers engaged in other activities besides steering the vehicle.

In the wake of some of these accidents, Tesla strengthened warnings to its customers that they must pay attention while using Autopilot and Full Self Driving – keeping hands on the wheel and watchful eyes on the road.

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