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Senate Committee Wants Answers From Tesla

Chairman John Thune is seeking answers from Tesla about its autonomous vehicle technology following a recent and fatal crash.

Tags: Electric Vehicles

July 18, 2016

​WASHINGTON – U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-SD), chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, is looking for answers from Elon Musk, chairman and CEO at Tesla Motors, following the recent death of a driver while using the autopilot mode on a Tesla Model S. The autopilot feature allows the vehicle to automatically steer, change lanes and manage speed.

In Thune’s letter to Musk, he asks whether the autonomous technology performed as intended and what Tesla’s actions are to educate consumers on the benefits and limitations of the technology. Thune requests answers from Musk no later than July 29, 2016.

In the letter, Thune recaps the May 7 incident where the driver of a Tesla Model S was killed when his vehicle impacted the bottom side of a tractor trailer. The Tesla’s “Autopilot” feature, a driver assistance element that allows the vehicle to automatically steer, change lanes and manage speed, was enabled at the time of this tragic accident.  The brake was not applied because, according to public statements attributed to Tesla, neither the Autopilot nor the driver “noticed the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky.” The driver in this tragedy, a former Navy SEAL, was the first known fatality in which autopilot was engaged. While investigations are still ongoing, questions remain as to whether the technology performed as intended and whether the accident could have been avoided. 

On June 28, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) opened a preliminary evaluation to examine the “design and performance of any driving aids in use at the time of the crash.”  Specifically, NHTSA is evaluating the use of automatic emergency braking functionality on the vehicle.

Earlier this year, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation held a hearing on the future of self-driving cars, where automobile industry representatives and self-driving technology innovators acknowledged that, while hurdles exist for the deployment of self-driving vehicles, driver assistance and autonomous technologies offer significant safety benefits. 

“To address the foregoing issues, I request that you direct company representatives to brief Committee staff on the details of this incident, including the technology that was in use at the time, Tesla’s actions in response, and the company’s cooperation with NHTSA, by no later than July 29, 2016,” concluded Thune.

There is strong support for the introduction of autonomous drive features, according to the Fuels Institute. The Department of Transportation reports there are approximately 35,000 traffic fatalities each year in the United States and many believe autonomous features can reduce this number. Despite the recent tragedy, there is tremendous momentum to deploy autonomous vehicles.

The administration included $2 billion in its budget to develop autonomous vehicle technology, and the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration has declared the Google autonomous car a “driver” for purposes of regulation. Many experts believe that fully autonomous vehicles will enter the market in significant numbers as soon as 2020, and several cities currently are seeking grants to deploy limited range, limited speed autonomous transit fleets. Convenience retailers should stay informed on the developments of this technology because it could significantly change the way people travel and the energy used to support such movement.