Palo Alto, Calif. – Feb. 01, 2017 – The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ended its six-month investigation into Tesla’s Autopilot system last week, finding no specific flaw in the technology that would spur action, according to Forbes.
This, in itself, was not a surprising story. The NHTSA will regularly close investigations without ordering a recall, depending on the specific nature of the defect, the risks associated with it and the possibility of repair. What was surprising, however, was what Tesla did in response.
Business Insider reported that in the middle of the investigation, Tesla released a software update that made some important changes to the Autopilot system – and which some say may have been enough to prevent the entire ordeal in the first place. While this may be reassuring to Tesla owners, some government officials think that there might be potential to build these kids of fixes into the recall process down the line.
In May 2016, a Tesla Model S driver in Florida was killed while using the Autopilot feature. Reports of the incident released in July revealed that the driver had collided with a truck that made a left turn in front of the Tesla. The Model S passed under the truck before driving off the road.
The car’s Autopilot feature, which had been introduced in October 2015, was supposed to keep the car on the road and avoid vehicles and other obstacles. However, the program was still quite new, and had been in a public beta phase. In a blog post released after the incident, Tesla noted that the system requires drivers to keep their hands on the steering wheel at all times, and to be prepared to take full control at any time. In addition, Business Insider reported that the system is not cross-traffic aware and is primarily built to avoid rear-end collisions.
The problem in the May accident, Tesla found, was that the Autopilot system failed to sense the truck’s white tractor trailer due to the bright light conditions during the clear day. Even so, the company insisted that it was only the particular height of the trailer and the angle of impact that led to the driver’s death. Tesla argued that if the collision had occurred at the front or rear of the trailer, the vehicle’s safety features could have been more effective.
The Future of Recalls
The software update that Tesla provided to its Autopilot system makes an important changes. Drivers will no longer be able to ignore messages to keep their hands on the wheel at all times – the system will lock them out if they don’t comply. Recently, Tesla CEO Elon Musk told Autoblog that he thinks this change could have prevented the accident.
While the NHTSA does not consider this update to be a full remedy, it does believe that some of its concerns have been addressed, according to Business Insider. In addition, NHTSA spokesperson Bryan Thomas told the news source that over-the-air updates may one day change the recall process if simple software changes are quicker and more cost-effective than physical recalls.
“These are questions the agency will have to deal with in the future, but we would very much like to move quickly toward that future,” Thomas said. He added that there may come a day when automakers no longer have to mail notifications to owners.
As the agency works on developing the Federal Automated Vehicles Policy, Thomas added that these questions will have to be answered.