WASHINGTON -- A second federal safety agency has opened a probe of an incident in which a Tesla Inc. car on Autopilot rammed into a parked firetruck, a sign of the scrutiny the emerging automated and drive-assist technology is receiving.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is sending investigators to California to evaluate the crash, according to a person familiar with the agency’s plans. Reuters also reported the latest development. The National Transportation Safety Board announced Tuesday that it was also sending investigators to examine the Monday morning incident, in which a Model S hit the truck assisting in a separate accident on the side of a freeway near Los Angeles.
The probes highlight the growing concerns about cars that are increasingly capable of autonomous operations, which have been permitted with limited government oversight. The NTSB, for example, rarely conducts investigations of highway accidents, generally opening probes of cases that have multiple fatalities or involve broader safety concerns.
NHTSA’s Special Crash Investigations unit typically probes around 100 crashes per year, often non-fatal ones.
The Tesla’s driver said he had the vehicle’s Autopilot driver-assist system engaged when it struck a firetruck, a union for the Culver City, Calif., firefighters said in a tweet on Monday. "Amazingly there were no injuries! Please stay alert while driving!" the union said in the tweet.
Tesla said in a statement Monday that Autopilot is “intended for use only with a fully attentive driver.” The company said it has taken steps to educate drivers about the need to keep their hands on the steering wheel and be prepared to take over from Autopilot, which it calls an "advanced driver assistance system" that is not intended to turn the vehicle into an autonomous car.
A Tesla spokeswoman declined to comment on the investigations.
The NTSB has previously said Tesla’s Autopilot system was a contributing factor in a 2016 fatal crash in Florida. In that case, a Model S driver died after the car drove underneath a crossing semi-trailer that the Autopilot’s sensors failed to detect.
NHTSA defect investigators also probed the 2016 crash and concluded there was no "defect in design or performance" of the Autopilot system and closed the case.
Separately, NHTSA’s Special Crash Investigations probe into the 2016 crash concluded that multiple driver-assist and crash avoidance systems had limitations but did not respond to the impending collision. The driver was responsible for maintaining control of the vehicle and neglected to do so leading up to the crash, they concluded.