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Blumenthal calls for federal probe into automated driving systems after deadly Tesla crash

Two people were killed in a crash, but neither was in the driver's seat
Credit: AP
The company logo is seen on the hood of an unsold Tesla at a dealership late Sunday, Aug. 9, 2020, in Littleton, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

WASHINGTON — U.S. Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Edward J. Markey (D-MA) are calling on federal investigators to conduct a thorough probe into the fatal crash of a Tesla earlier this month, in which investigators believe no one was in the driver’s seat at the time.

Blumenthal and Markey want officials to develop recommendations for how automated driving and driving assistance systems like Tesla’s Autopilot can be improved.

The crash in question happened on April 17 near Houston, according to Harris County Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman. The constable said one victim was found in the back seat of the burned vehicle and one victim was found in the front passenger seat. Herman said his investigators claimed no one was driving at the time of impact.

But Tesla's Elon Musk tweeted that his company's data did not show Autopilot was enabled on the car. He also said the person who purchased the Tesla did not buy the full self-driving feature.

“While automated driving and driver assistance systems – like the Autopilot feature on Tesla cars – can help prevent injurious and fatal accidents, they must be implemented strategically and safely,” wrote the Senators to NHTSA Acting Administrator Steven Cliff and NTSB. “The most recent Tesla crash is the latest in a rash of accidents – the 28th – that NHTSA is investigating involving a Tesla car. We fear safety concerns involving these vehicles are becoming a pattern, which is incredibly worrisome and deserves your undivided attention.”

The National Transportation Safety Board and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are both looking into the cause of the wreck.

Tesla has also been criticized for misrepresenting the capabilities of their vehicles’ automated driving and driver assistance systems, giving drivers a false sense of security.

The NTSB says they will be looking at the vehicle operations and post-crash fire to see if the car was operating as designed. In past Tesla crashes, they’ve used the vehicle’s car log to determine the second by second actions before the crash, including details like the speed, distance and whether or not specialty systems, like autosteer, were initiated.

Tesla says its vehicles record that data at regular intervals and can transmit it over the air to their servers.

But when it comes to putting out electric vehicle fires, NTSB said last November, a third of all fire departments don’t train on how to do that.

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