830,000 Tesla vehicles could be affected by an expanded Autopilot investigation

To ensure the system isn't linked to an increased risk of accidents.
Brad Bergan
A Tesla vehicle.Chris Yarzab / Flickr

Tesla is falling under increased scrutiny from the federal government.

The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) is substantially expanding its preliminary evaluation of Tesla's Autopilot driver-assistance system — to decide whether the novel technology creates serious safety concerns.

The expanded investigation is reportedly connected to crashes involving the Autopilot mode, taking the NHTSA's analysis to the "engineering analysis" phase.

This is a "more intensive level of scrutiny that is required before a recall can be ordered," according to a New York Times report.

And with 830,000 Tesla vehicles potentially involved in the investigation, it's officially about more than the hype.

830,000 Tesla vehicles could be at stake

The more intensive analysis will go beyond the tendency of drivers to become distracted while the Tesla vehicle is on Autopilot — zooming in on the system itself, and whether it can, by itself, cause crashes (when it's turned on).

During its first analysis of Tesla's Autopilot, the NHTSA examined only 11 specific wrecks, but since then it's radically expanded the number of cases to 191. This more in-depth review could have a serious impact on all Tesla models manufactured from 2014 to 2021.

In case you missed it, that's roughly 830,000 vehicles at stake.

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"We've been asking for closer scrutiny of Autopilot for some time," said Executive Director Jonathan Adkins of the Governors Highway Safety Association, which brings state efforts to bear on safe driving practices, in the New York Times report. The NHTSA said it knew of 35 crashes that happened while Autopilot was activated — nine that left 14 people dead.

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But on Thursday, the agency said it hadn't concluded whether Autopilot itself has defects that can cause cars to crash while it's on. The roughly 830,000 vehicles sold in the U.S. by Tesla potentially under review include Models Y, 3, S, and X. The agency will explore multiple component systems that handle steering, braking, and additional driving tasks. It'll also look into the more advanced system (and Elon Musk's favorite): Full Self-Driving.

US agency urges Tesla to rename 'Full Self-Driving'

"This isn't your typical defect case," said Acting Executive Director Michael Brooks of the Center for Auto Safety — which is a nonprofit consumer advocacy group, in the New York Times report. "They are actively looking for a problem that can be fixed, and they're looking at driver behavior, and the problem may not be a component in the vehicle."

Of course, this also has ramifications on and potential support for the criticism of Musk for "hyping up" his Full Self-Driving and Autopilot features — which some say have intimated that Tesla vehicles can drive themselves with zero input from drivers.

"At a minimum they should be renamed," said Adkins. "Those names confuse people into thinking they can do more than they are actually capable of." And Tesla isn't the only automaker developing self-driving systems. Rival ones developed by Ford Motor and General Motor employ infrared cameras that track your eyes while driving, and warn you with chimes when you look away from the road for more than a few seconds.

At first, Tesla didn't include these cautionary features, but eventually equipped its vehicles with a standard camera — but it's not as precise as infrared cameras, when it comes to tracking eyes. Suffice to say that the future of self-driving — and Tesla itself — is at a crucial crossroads this year, and much will come from the NHTSA's final decision on roughly 830,000 EVS from Elon Musk's firm.

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