Derrick Monet and his wife, Jenna, were driving on an Indiana interstate in 2019 when their Tesla Model 3 sedan operating on Autopilot crashed into a parked fire truck. Derrick, then 25, sustained spine, neck, shoulder, rib and leg fractures. Jenna, 23, died at the hospital.
The incident was one of a dozen in the last four years in which Teslas using this driver-assistance system collided with first-responder vehicles, raising questions about the safety of technology the world’s most valuable car company considers one of its crown jewels.
Now, U.S. regulators are applying greater scrutiny to Autopilot than ever before. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which has the authority to force recalls, has opened two formal defect investigations that could ultimately lead Tesla Inc. to have to retrofit cars and restrict use of Autopilot in situations it still can’t safely handle.
A clampdown on Autopilot could tarnish Tesla’s reputation with consumers and spook investors whose belief in the company’s self-driving bona fides have helped make Tesla CEO Elon Musk the world’s wealthiest person. It could damage confidence in technology other auto and software companies are spending billions to develop in hope of reversing a troubling trend of soaring U.S. traffic fatalities.
It also could also bring long-simmering tensions between Washington and Tesla to a boil. The iconoclastic Musk has already derided NHTSA as the “fun police” and chafed at President Joe Biden’s unwillingness to lavish the pioneering company with praise. He’s not shy about lambasting lawmakers and regulators on Twitter, the social media platform he has offered to purchase for $43 billion.