Tesla is recalling more than 2 million vehicles in the US to install new precautions in its Autopilot driver assistance system, after a federal safety regulator cited safety concerns.
Tesla’s largest-ever recall covers nearly all vehicles on U.S. roads to ensure drivers are careful when using the system. Tesla said in a statement about the recall that the Autopilot system’s software controls “may not be sufficient to prevent driver misuse” and could increase the risk of a crash.
The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has been investigating for more than two years whether vehicles produced by the electric carmaker, which is headed by billionaire Elon Musk, provide sufficient driver attentiveness.
NHTSA acting administrator Anne Carlson praised Tesla for agreeing to the recall. “We found that drivers are not always paying attention to the system being on,” she said at a hearing in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Carlson said the agency began the safety review in August 2021 when she kept hearing about fatal crashes involving Autopilot use. “My immediate reaction was, ‘We have to do something about this,'” she said.
In addition, Transport Canada said Tesla is recalling 193,000 vehicles to address the Autopilot issue. It was not immediately clear if the recall would require China.
Tesla’s autopilot is designed to automatically steer, accelerate and brake within its lane, while extended autopilot can help change lanes on the highway but does not make the car autonomous.
One component of autopilot is the Autosteer feature, which maintains a set speed or following distance and helps the car stay in its lane.
Tesla said it disagrees with the NHTSA’s analysis, but intends to release a software update that “will include additional controls and warnings to those already on affected vehicles to further encourage the driver to adhere to his or her ongoing driving responsibility when Autosteer is activated.”
U.S. Senators Ed Markey and Richard Blumenthal said the recall “is desperately needed to make Tesla vehicles safer, but it is blatantly overdue…. We call on NHTSA to continue its investigation to spur the necessary recalls and on Tesla to stop misleading drivers and putting the public at great risk.”
NHTSA said its Autopilot investigation will remain open while it monitors Tesla’s remedial actions.
Tesla did not respond to a question about the scope of the worldwide recall or provide more specific details about the new safety measures.
NHTSA began reviewing autopilot in August 2021 after finding more than a dozen crashes in which Tesla vehicles crashed into stationary emergency vehicles.
In June 2022, NHTSA said Autopilot “may provide inadequate controls over driver engagement and use, which could lead to foreseeable abuse.”
NHTSA analyzed 956 crashes in which Autopilot was allegedly initially used and focused on 322 crashes involving Autopilot.
Bryant Walker Smith, a law professor at the University of South Carolina, says a software-only fix would be pretty limited. The recall “really seems to place a lot of responsibility on human drivers rather than on the system that facilitates this misuse.”
Donald Slavik, an attorney representing several people who have sued Tesla alleging defects in its Autopilot system, says some jurisdictions, including California, may allow plaintiffs to introduce the NHTSA recall as evidence, as well as other fixes made by Tesla after the crash.
At the same time, however, plaintiffs still have to prove that the defect at issue in the recall caused the specific crash.
“That’s one step … but it’s not a solution either way,” Slavik said.
In addition, since 2016, NHTSA has launched more than three dozen special investigations into Tesla crashes in cases where driver systems like Autopilot were suspected, with 23 crash fatalities reported to date.
NHTSA has said that the risk of collisions can increase when the Autopilot system is on, but the driver does not retain responsibility and is not prepared to intervene.
Tesla will roll out the update to 2.03 million Model S, X, 3 and Y vehicles in the U.S. starting in 2012, the agency said.
The update, based on the vehicle’s hardware, will include increased visibility of visual warnings, easier turning Autosteer on and off, and additional checks when Autosteer is turned on.
In October, Tesla announced that the U.S. Department of Justice had issued subpoenas related to its Full Autonomous Driving (FSD) system and Autopilot. In October 2022, Reuters reported that Tesla was under criminal investigation.
In February, Tesla recalled 362,000 U.S. vehicles for FSD Beta software updates after NHTSA said the vehicles did not comply with highway safety laws and could cause accidents.
In 2017, NHTSA ended a previous investigation into Autopilot without taking action. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) criticized Tesla for lacking system safeguards for Autopilot, and NHTSA criticized Tesla for failing to keep Autopilot safe.
Tesla shares were unchanged Wednesday afternoon.