Tesla is under investigation by Senate Democrats for autopilot abuse


Two Senate Democrats are urging federal regulators to take “corrective action” against Tesla to prevent further abuse of the company’s advanced driver assistance systems. The request comes in the aftermath of a fatal crash that killed two Texas men after their Tesla Model S crashed without anyone behind the wheel.

In a letter to the acting National Highway Traffic Safety Administration administrator Steven Cliff, Senators Ed Markey (D-MA) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) implored the agency to determine the exact cause of this recent crash to help future legislation ‘to better inform’. around advanced driver assistance systems such as Tesla’s Autopilot.

“We strongly encourage you to conduct a full investigation into the fatal Tesla vehicle accident on Saturday and develop recommendations for improving automated driver and driver assistance systems,” write Markey and Blumenthal. “We look forward to working with you and the NTSB to implement policy changes that will stop these avoidable deaths and save lives.”

A special NHTSA crash team is investigating the crash, as are investigators from the independent National Transportation Safety Board. On Monday, NHTSA said the agency is working with local law enforcement to learn more about the incident and “take appropriate action” when investigators gather more information.

The incident took place at 9 p.m. local time in Spring, Texas. According to KHOU in Houston, investigators are “100 percent certain” that no one was in the driver’s seat at the time of the crash. Minutes before the crash, the men’s wives would hear them talking about the vehicle’s Autopilot feature, a 2019 Tesla Model S, according to The New York Times. The two victims were identified as Everette Talbot, 69, and William Varner, 59, a prominent local anesthetist.

It’s not clear what direction the NHTSA’s investigation will take. The agency has been in the past criticized for misrepresenting Autopilot safety and to give the company a pass when it comes to the possibility that its customers could misuse the technology in its vehicles. NHTSA recently announced that it has opened 27 investigations into accidents involving Tesla vehicles, 23 of which are still active. Tesla CEO Elon Musk recently tweeted that “NHTSA is great.”

NTSB, on the other hand, has proven to be more willing to point the finger at Musk’s company. An NTSB investigation into the death of a Tesla owner in California in 2018 said Autopilot was partly to blame. Musk was much more hostile to the agency at one point hang up with the chairman of NTSB.

Tesla did not respond to a request for comment, likely because the company has dissolved its news agency and typically no longer responds to media requests. In a recent tweetMusk claimed that “data logs recovered so far” indicate that Autopilot was not turned on, nor had the vehicle owner purchased the company’s “Full Self-Driving” option that enabled Autopilot to be used on local roads.

Tesla owners have shown that Autopilot can be used on roads without lane markings, and Consumer reports recently conducted a test that found that Tesla’s vehicles can easily be fooled into thinking someone is behind the wheel, even if there isn’t one.