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Safety of Automated Driving Systems in Question

Eleven more people were killed in U.S. crashes involving vehicles that were using automated driving systems during a four-month period earlier this year, according to newly released government data, part of an alarming pattern of incidents linked to the technology.

Ten of the deaths involved vehicles made by Tesla, though it is unclear from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s data whether the technology itself was at fault or whether driver error might have been responsible. The 11th death involved a Ford pickup truck.

The deaths included four crashes involving motorcycles that occurred during the spring and summer: two in Florida and one each in California and Utah. Safety advocates note that the deaths of motorcyclists in crashes involving Tesla vehicles using automated driver-assist systems such as Autopilot have been increasing.

The new fatal crashes are documented in a database that NHTSA is building in an effort to broadly assess the safety of automated driving systems, which, led by Tesla, have been growing in use. Tesla alone has more than 830,000 vehicles on U.S. roads with the systems. The agency is requiring auto and tech companies to report all crashes involving self-driving vehicles as well as autos with driver-assist systems that can take over some driving tasks from people.

The 11 new fatal crashes, reported from mid-May through September, were included in statistics that the agency released Monday. In June, the agency released data it had collected from July 2021 through May 15, 2022.

The figures that were released in June showed that six people died in crashes involving the automated systems, and five were seriously hurt. Of the deaths, five occurred in Teslas and one a Ford. In each case, the database says that advanced driver-assist systems were in use at the time of the crash.

Michael Brooks, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Auto Safety, said he is baffled by NHTSA’s continued investigations and by what he called a general lack of action since problems with Autopilot began surfacing back in 2016.

“I think there’s a pretty clear pattern of bad behavior on the part of Tesla when it comes to obeying the edicts of the (federal) safety act, and NHTSA is just sitting there,” he said. “How many more deaths do we need to see of motorcyclists?”

Brooks noted that the Tesla crashes are victimizing more people who are not in the Tesla vehicles.

“You’re seeing innocent people who had no choice in the matter being killed or injured,” he said.

Tesla’s crash number may appear elevated because it uses telematics to monitor its vehicles and obtain real-time crash reports. Other automakers lack such capability, so their crash reports may emerge more slowly or may not be reported at all, NHTSA has said.

NHTSA has been investigating Autopilot since August of last year after a string of crashes since 2018 in which Teslas hit emergency vehicles parked along roadways with flashing lights on. That investigation moved a step closer to a recall in June, when it was upgraded to what is called an engineering analysis.

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