Tesla is facing a very serious and long overdue safety probe from NHTSA over the advanced driver-assistance system called Autopilot.
At issue is whether that system, in as many as 765,000 Tesla Models S, X, 3 and Y manufactured since 2014, is partly or fully responsible for a series of crashes that resulted in at least 17 injuries and one death. The string of Teslas smashing into first-responder vehicles parked at the scenes of other incidents is disturbing — and demands further examination.
The fact that the safety agency took up the matter — after ending a similar probe four years ago — indicates that a pattern has been identified and some kind of consequences might finally be forthcoming.
As we have argued many times, despite both its name and the well-couched claims of Tesla CEO Elon Musk, Autopilot is not technologically capable of "full self-driving." Repeated accidents and lost lives continue to demonstrate this truth.
"NHTSA reminds the public that no commercially available motor vehicles today are capable of driving themselves," an agency spokesperson said in a statement accompanying notice of the investigation.
What's less clear is whether NHTSA can correct Tesla's behavior. As the spokesperson added: "All state laws hold human drivers responsible for operation of their vehicles."
Since so much of the danger originates with Tesla overhyping its driver-assistance system's capabilities, the more effective restraint may come from an entity such as the Federal Trade Commission. Two senators last week called on the FTC to investigate whether the California automaker used deceptive marketing that put the public at risk.
We asked rhetorically in April "How many must die for Tesla to face reckoning?" because of the way the automaker continues to oversell the capabilities of its vehicles. As we noted then, in public Musk says the company is very close to full SAE Level 5 automated driving. But in its conversations with regulators, the company admits that Autopilot and Full Self-Driving are Level 2 driver-assist suites, not unlike those sold by other automakers.
We hope NHTSA's investigation is thorough, and any penalties imposed have real teeth. It's past time Tesla stopped playing with people's lives on the nation's roadways.