The car screen shows obstacles and tracks the vehicle’s movements. (Liam Harrap/Revelstoke Review)

The car screen shows obstacles and tracks the vehicle’s movements. (Liam Harrap/Revelstoke Review)

Crash, arrest draw more scrutiny of Tesla Autopilot system

Tesla’s partially automated driving system has been involved in multiple crashes that have resulted in at least 3 U.S. deaths

Federal safety regulators are sending a team to California to investigate a fatal freeway crash involving a Tesla, just after authorities near Oakland arrested a man in another Tesla rolling down a freeway with no one behind the steering wheel.

Experts say both cases raise pressure on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to take action on Tesla’s partially automated driving system called Autopilot, which has been involved in multiple crashes that have resulted in at least three U.S. deaths.

The probe of the May 5 crash in Fontana, California, east of Los Angeles, is the 29th case involving a Tesla that the agency has responded to. Local media reported that the male Tesla driver was killed and two other men were seriously injured when the electric car struck an overturned semi on a freeway. It wasn’t clear whether the Tesla was operating on Autopilot or Tesla’s “Full Self-Driving” system.

“We have launched a Special Crash Investigation for this crash. NHTSA remains vigilant in overseeing the safety of all motor vehicles and equipment, including automated technologies,” the agency said in a statement Wednesday.

The investigation comes just after the California Highway Patrol arrested another man who authorities say was in the back seat of a Tesla that was riding down Interstate 80 with no one behind the wheel.

Param Sharma, 25, is accused of reckless driving and disobeying a peace officer, the CHP said in a statement Tuesday.

The statement did not say if officials have determined whether the Tesla was operating on Autopilot, which can keep a car centered in its lane and a safe distance behind vehicles in front of it.

But it’s likely that either Autopilot or “Full Self-Driving” were in operation for the driver to be in the back seat. Tesla is allowing a limited number of owners to test its self-driving system.

Tesla, which has disbanded its public relations department, did not respond to messages seeking comment Wednesday.

The Fontana investigation, in addition to probes of two crashes in Michigan from earlier this year, show that NHTSA is taking a closer look at the Tesla systems.

Experts say that the agency needs to rein in such systems because people tend to trust them too much when they cannot drive themselves.

Tesla says on its website and in owners manuals that for both driver-assist systems, drivers must be ready to intervene at any time. But drivers have repeatedly zoned out with Autopilot in use, resulting in crashes in which neither the system nor the driver stopped for obstacles in the road.

Experts say the arrest and the latest investigation are signs that NHTSA is taking a closer look at automated systems, specifically those in Teslas.

“I think they very likely are getting serious about this, and we may actually start to see some action in the not-too-distant future,” said Sam Abuelsamid, principal mobility analyst for Guidehouse Insights who follows automated systems.

“I definitely think that the increasing number of incidents is adding more fuel to the fire for NHTSA to do more,” said Missy Cummings, an electrical and computer engineering professor at Duke University who studies automated vehicles. “I do think they are going to be stronger about this.”

The agency could declare Autopilot defective and require it to be recalled, or it could force Tesla to limit areas where Autopilot can be used to limited-access freeways. It could also make the company install a stronger system to ensure drivers are paying attention.

The auto industry, except for Tesla, already does a good job of limiting where such systems can operate, and is moving to self-regulate, Cummings said. Tesla seems to be heading that way. It’s now installing driver-facing cameras on recent models, she said.

Tesla has a system to monitor drivers to make sure they’re paying attention by detecting force from hands on the steering wheel.

The system will issue warnings and eventually shut the car down if it doesn’t detect hands. But critics have said Tesla’s system is easy to fool and can take as long as a minute to shut down. Consumer Reports said in April that it was able to trick a Tesla into driving in Autopilot mode with no one at the wheel.

In March, a Tesla official also told California regulators that “Full Self-Driving” was a driver-assist system that requires monitoring by humans. In notes released by the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles, the company couldn’t say whether Tesla’s technology would improve to fully self driving by the end of the year, contrary to statements made by company CEO Elon Musk.

In the back-seat driving case, authorities got multiple 911 calls Monday evening that a person was in the back of Tesla Model 3 while the vehicle traveled on Interstate 80 across the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.

A motorcycle officer spotted the Tesla, confirmed the solo occupant was in the back seat, took action to stop the car and saw the occupant move to the driver’s seat before the car stopped, said the statement from the highway patrol, known as CHP.

Authorities said they cited Sharma on April 27 for similar behavior.

In an interview with The Associated Press Wednesday, Sharma said he did nothing wrong, and he’ll keep riding in the back seat with no one behind the steering wheel.

Musk wants him to keep doing this, he said. “It was actually designed to be ridden in the back seat,” Sharma said. “I feel safer in the back seat than I do in the driver’s seat, and I feel safer with my car on Autopilot, I trust my car Autopilot more than I trust everyone on the road.”

He believes his Model 3 can drive itself, and doesn’t understand why he had to spend a night in jail.

“The way where we stand right now, I can launch a self-driving Tesla from Emeryville all the way to downtown San Francisco from the back seat,” he said, adding that he has gone about 40,000 miles in Tesla vehicles without being in the driver’s seat.

Sharma’s comments suggest he is among a number of Tesla drivers who rely too much on the company’s driving systems, Duke’s Cummings said.

“It’s showing people the thought process behind people who have way too much trust in a very unproven technology,” she said.

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

Tesla

Just Posted

Pam Bottomley (executive director), right and Sandy Hurley (president) of the Parksville Downtown Business Association visit the PQB News/VI Free Daily studio. (Peter McCully photo)
PQBeat: Downtown Parksville gears up for post-pandemic bounce back

Podcast: Hurley, Bottomley chat about what’s ahead for the PDBA

(Black Press file photo)
RCMP: Air ambulance called to Whiskey Creek after crash involving 2 motorbikes

Both riders taken to hospital with serious injuries

(File photo)
Crime report: Crooks busy pilfering bikes throughout Parksville Qualicum Beach area

Thefts among 295 complaints Oceanside RCMP deal with in one-week period

The Arrowsmith Search and Rescue logo on the back of a service vehicle. (Mandy Moraes photo)
Parksville and Qualicum Beach provide letters of support for Arrowsmith Search and Rescue

ASAR asks for increase in funding, one-time capital grant and for RDN to buy out current facility

The proposed running track upgrade at Ballenas Secondary is now on course. (PQB News file photo)
RDN: Parksville track upgrade project gains some traction

Staff recommends board approve $204,000 funding

People watch a car burn during a riot following game 7 of the NHL Stanley Cup final in downtown Vancouver, B.C., in this June 15, 2011 photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Geoff Howe
10 years ago: Where were you during the 2011 Vancouver Stanley Cup Riots?

Smashed-in storefronts, looting, garbage can fires and overturned cars some of the damage remembered today

Annamie Paul, leader of the Green Party of Canada, speaks at a news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on June 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
Green Leader Annamie Paul facing no-confidence motion from party brass

move follows months of internal strife and the defection of MP Jenica Atwin to the Liberals

Tulips bloom in front of the Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa, Thursday, May 10, 2018. Day two of a full week of scheduled hearings will be heard in Federal Court today on a case involving Indigenous children unnecessarily taken into foster care by what all parties call Canada’s “broken child welfare system.” THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
AFN slams Ottawa for ‘heartless’ legal challenge of First Nations child compensation

2019 decision awarded $40,000 to each Indigenous child removed before 2006

Rick Ruppenthal of Saltair will host a 12-hour talk-a-thon Friday, June 18 over Facebook live. (Photo submitted)
Talk-a-thon to focus on men’s mental health issues

Island man spearheading a campaign to generate more conversation during fundraiser

Ivy was thrown out of a moving vehicle in Kelowna. Her tail was severely injured and will be amputated. (BC SPCA)
Kitten thrown from moving vehicle, needs help: Kelowna SPCA

The seven-week-old kitten had severe tail and femur injuries

The Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre estimates that less than five per cent of mass-marketing fraud is ever reported.
Tips to avoid scams targeting Vancouver Island seniors

In most cases, fraudsters impersonate an individual, business or agency seniors recognize and trust

Vancouver courthouse. (Photo: Tom Zytaruk)
Man loses bid to appeal conviction for 1999 rape at Abbotsford music festival

James Redden, 53, formerly of Nanaimo, was found guilty in 2019 following six-day trial

A health-care worker holds up a sign signalling she needs more COVID-19 vaccines at the ‘hockey hub’ mass vaccination facility at the CAA Centre during the COVID-19 pandemic in Brampton, Ont., on Friday, June 4, 2021. This NHL-sized hockey rink is one of CanadaÕs largest vaccination centres. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
‘Vaxxed to the max’: Feds launch Ask an Expert campaign to encourage COVID shots

Survey shows that confidence in vaccines has risen this spring

Port Alberni court house (Alberni Valley News)
Inquest set into 2016 death of B.C. teen after a day spent in police custody

18-year-old Jocelyn George died of heart failure in hospital after spending time in jail cell

Most Read