At the end of a prosperous year which saw its production double to approach one million cars, Tesla must face the hardening of the conflict which opposes it to the American road safety authorities. For several months, the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration), the American federal agency responsible for road safety, has been increasing investigations and warnings about the controversial automated driving system, called Autopilot, which equips vehicles with Elon Musk’s firm.
In November, it received a complaint from a Californian driver of a Model Y. The driver assistance system allegedly – despite its attempts to regain control – put the car in the wrong lane, causing a collision head on, without causing any injuries. This motorist was using the most elaborate version of the software, called “full self-driving” (“full autonomous driving”), entrusted to selected customers to play the role of beta testers.
In August, the NHTSA had already launched investigations after having identified a dozen collisions (which left 17 injured and one dead) involving Teslas having struck security vehicles parked on the side. Another sticking point is a feature to bring up video games or surf the internet via the large dashboard screen while the car is in motion. A function finally deactivated at the end of December on the orders of the authorities.
According to the NHTSA, which obtained the recall of 12,000 vehicles due to reports of unexpected braking (“phantom braking”, phenomena which also concern other manufacturers), Tesla is going too far, too fast and circumventing regulatory procedures. To be authorized, she recalls, the tests of autonomous vehicles must comply with a protocol providing in particular for the presence of a driver. On January 7, the State of California, which had initially given its approval to Tesla, announced that it was going to reconsider this green light, citing the dissemination on social networks of videos highlighting a series of malfunctions.
This showdown comes as, since Joe Biden took office in January 2021, road safety policy has evolved in the United States, where road fatalities have continued to increase (36,680 killed in 2020, the worst toll since 2007, and more than 20,000 in the first six months of 2021). From now on, the government wants to supervise experiments more strictly.
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