Skip to Content
Global News Select

Tesla Crashes Raise Safety Questions in Congress About Driver-Assistance Systems — Update

By Rebecca Elliott 

Two U.S. senators have expressed concern about what they said may be an emerging pattern of safety concerns involving Tesla Inc. vehicles in the wake of a fatal crash in Texas.

In a letter Thursday to America's top automotive-safety regulator, Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts urged the agency to develop recommendations for improving advanced driver-assistance systems such as Tesla's Autopilot.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has opened a probe into the weekend crash, one of more than two dozen investigations it has launched into Tesla-involved crashes. The agency has said that most of those investigations are related to the vehicles' advanced driver-assistance features.

"We fear safety concerns involving these vehicles are becoming a pattern, which is incredibly worrisome and deserves your undivided attention," the Democratic senators wrote about Tesla in the letter, which was viewed by The Wall Street Journal.

A Saturday crash involving a Tesla Model S has increased scrutiny of the car maker's advanced driver-assistance system, known as Autopilot, because the local constable has said that he believed no one was in the driver's seat at the time of the incident. One of the two men who died in the crash in a suburban neighborhood north of Houston was found in the front passenger's seat, the other in the back seat, local officials have said.

Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk said Monday that data recovered so far showed Autopilot wasn't enabled. He didn't specify whether that meant at the time of the crash or at any time during the preceding drive. Tesla didn't respond to requests seeking clarification.

NHTSA had no immediate comment.

Another federal organization, the National Transportation Safety Board, also has launched an investigation into the incident. The board, which has the power to issue safety recommendations, has said its review will focus on both the operation of the vehicle and the post-crash fire, which local officials have said took hours to extinguish. Batteries used in electric vehicles can reignite after initial flames are put out, as this one did, said Palmer Buck, chief of The Woodlands Fire Department, which responded to the incident.

The senators' letter speaks to a tension that regulators face with driver-assistance features such as collision warning or adaptive cruise control. The technology can help make driving safer, but also introduces new risks.

"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," the lawmakers, who both sit on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, wrote.

Tesla says that driving with Autopilot enabled is safer than driving without it. Hours before the Saturday crash, Mr. Musk tweeted: "Tesla with Autopilot engaged now approaching 10 times lower chance of accident than average vehicle."

NHTSA doesn't have any rules in place specifying how companies must go about ensuring that drivers are paying attention while driver-assistance systems are engaged. The NTSB has said that lack of regulation puts people at risk.

Consumer Reports said that during testing this week it was able to get a different Tesla model's Autopilot to operate without anyone in the driver's seat. The vehicle, which uses steering-wheel inputs to assess driver attention, didn't send any warnings about an empty driver's seat, Consumer Reports said. The organization attached a weight to a Model Y's steering wheel to simulate a hand during the testing.

"I was really shocked how easy it was to do it." said Jake Fisher, the group's senior director of auto testing, one of the people involved in the test-track experiment. "When you have an automation system like that which explicitly needs a driver to be ready to take over at any time, you have to make sure that someone is actually engaged."

Tesla didn't respond to a request for comment on the Consumer Reports finding.

Write to Rebecca Elliott at


(END) Dow Jones Newswires

April 22, 2021 13:11 ET (17:11 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

Transparency is how we protect the integrity of our work and keep empowering investors to achieve their goals and dreams. And we have unwavering standards for how we keep that integrity intact, from our research and data to our policies on content and your personal data.

We’d like to share more about how we work and what drives our day-to-day business.

We sell different types of products and services to both investment professionals and individual investors. These products and services are usually sold through license agreements or subscriptions. Our investment management business generates asset-based fees, which are calculated as a percentage of assets under management. We also sell both admissions and sponsorship packages for our investment conferences and advertising on our websites and newsletters.

How we use your information depends on the product and service that you use and your relationship with us. We may use it to:

  • Verify your identity, personalize the content you receive, or create and administer your account.
  • Provide specific products and services to you, such as portfolio management or data aggregation.
  • Develop and improve features of our offerings.
  • Gear advertisements and other marketing efforts towards your interests.

To learn more about how we handle and protect your data, visit our privacy center.

Maintaining independence and editorial freedom is essential to our mission of empowering investor success. We provide a platform for our authors to report on investments fairly, accurately, and from the investor’s point of view. We also respect individual opinions––they represent the unvarnished thinking of our people and exacting analysis of our research processes. Our authors can publish views that we may or may not agree with, but they show their work, distinguish facts from opinions, and make sure their analysis is clear and in no way misleading or deceptive.

To further protect the integrity of our editorial content, we keep a strict separation between our sales teams and authors to remove any pressure or influence on our analyses and research.

Read our editorial policy to learn more about our process.