US regulator investigates Tesla after crashes with emergency vehicles

16 Aug 2021

Image: © Sergey Kohl/

The NHTSA says Tesla vehicles using the company’s Autopilot system have collided with first responder vehicles at least 11 times since 2018.

The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has opened an investigation into Tesla, saying its Autopilot driver-assistance system has trouble identifying parked emergency vehicles.

According to documents made public today (16 August), NHTSA said it has identified 11 crashes in nine states in the last three years in which Tesla vehicles using some form of assisted driving collided with first responder vehicles attending emergencies.

The agency said the accidents had mostly occurred after dark and involved emergency scenes with safety measures such as flares, flashing lights, illuminated arrow boards or traffic cones.

The incidents had collectively caused 17 injuries and one fatality, according to the NHTSA. The investigation affects all Tesla Model Y, X, S and 3 vehicles made between 2014 and 2021, or an estimated 765,000 vehicles in the US.

Tesla, which disbanded its PR department late in 2020, has yet to comment publicly on the matter. The company’s shares dropped by 5pc earlier today following the NHTSA announcement.

This is not the first time the NHTSA has announced an investigation into the Tesla Autopilot system. In June, the agency announced it was probing 10 deaths since 2016 where the assistance system may have been in use. This came after a March announcement that the NHTSA had 23 active investigations relating to Tesla.

The NHTSA’s new probe announcement notes that “the driver still holds primary responsibility for object and event detection and response” while using Autopilot. Despite this, during a crash in Texas in April in which two people were killed, police said there was no one in the driving seat of the Tesla Model S.

In July 2020, a German court ruled that Autopilot’s marketing was misleading and suggested the vehicle was capable of driving itself, including by using the name ‘Autopilot’.

In May, a report from the California Department of Motor Vehicles contradicted CEO Elon Musk’s claims that Tesla’s cars had “no fundamental challenges remaining” in the process of being certified for fully automated driving. Vehicles with Autopilot provide partial driving automation but still require active human monitoring and a person must remain in the driver’s seat to take control when needed.

Jack Kennedy is a freelance journalist based in Dublin