Tesla is currently under investigation by NHTSA after some of its cars crashed into parked emergency vehicles. Reports suggest that in at least some of the cases, Tesla Autopilot was engaged. Tesla used an over-the-air (OTA) software update to help its cars "see" and respond to emergency vehicles at night, but NHTSA wonders why there were no recall documents filed for the update.
Some may say NHTSA should be patting Tesla on the back for adding the update promptly. However, others feel Tesla is allowed to forgo processes and paperwork that may plague competing automakers.
Tesla often updates its car via OTA updates. While many of these updates pertain to tech and convenience features, the automaker is also continuously assessing the safety of its vehicles. This means if Tesla identifies a potential issue, it can simply send an update. There's no need for a service visit, and, as far as Tesla is concerned, no need for a recall.
That said, according to a report from the Associated Press (shared by Autoblog), Tesla must file recall documents if it updates its fleet in an attempt to solve a "safety defect." NHTSA wrote in the letter:
“Any manufacturer issuing an over-the-air update that mitigates a defect that poses an unreasonable risk to motor vehicle safety is required to timely file an accompanying recall notice to NHTSA."
NHTSA posted the letter on its website and requested a response from Tesla. However, Tesla no longer has an official communication's department.
NHTSA says Tesla knows it must submit a recall if it becomes aware of a safety defect. However, Tesla could argue that there was never any safety defect, and that it was simply improving its Autopilot software incrementally, as it has in the past.
While NHSTA is investigating Tesla for a safety defect, there hasn't yet been any ruling that a problem has been found. Moreover, NHTSA's probe into Tesla could have certainly pushed the automaker to initiate the update since there's the potential that NHTSA will find safety defects, though if it does, Tesla has already pushed the update prior to being requested to do so.
On the other hand, NHTSA has rules automakers must follow, and Tesla is no exception. If the company was required to issue a recall, it should have done so, even though it would have been seen as the company admitting that there's a problem prior to NHTSA pinpointing a problem.
Keep in mind, in the description for Autopilot, as well as most other ADAS systems and features like Traffic-Aware Cruise Control (TACC), it clearly explains that the system may not detect a slow-moving or stationary vehicle. Other systems still may not detect such cars. Due to the recent update, Tesla's vehicles are now supposed to detect stationary emergency vehicles at night, which is a major step forward if the update works as advertised.
At this point, there's no way of knowing how the battle between Tesla and NHTSA will play out. Much of it comes down to wording and definitions. If there is a safety defect, Tesla must reveal it and issue a recall to fix it. However, if there was no safety defect in the first place, since it's clearly explained in the owner's manual that the cars aren't designed to stop for stationary vehicles, then one could argue that issuing a recall shouldn't be required.
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