Following the crash of a Tesla Model S that killed two people in Texas, Senators Ed Markey (D-MA) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) have sent a letter to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) Acting Administrator Steven Cliff calling for a determination of the exact cause of the crash. The letter states that this information could help shape future legislation surrounding self-driving cars.
“We look forward to working with you and the NTSB to implement policy changes that stop these preventable deaths from occurring and save lives,” they said in their letter.
The NHTSA and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) are already investigating the crash. Since the initial report of the crash, the two fatalities were identified as Everette Talbot, 69, and William Varner, 59. William Varner was listed as one of the best anesthesiologists in the Houston area.
Local authorities say that the 2019 Model S vehicle’s Autopilot was likely activated at the time of the crash, which Tesla CEO Elon Musk disputes. Tesla vehicles with Autopilot or Full Self-Driving are capable of transmitting data about usage to Tesla servers when the software. That data can then be used to train the central AI that controls the software. According to Musk, the logs indicate that the Autopilot was inactive and the vehicle was not equipped with the Full Self-Driving software.
The initial data indicates that the Model S may have been speeding at the time of the crash. There had been reports of sudden unintended acceleration in some Tesla vehicles, which the NHTSA previously investigated. The regulatory body ruled at the time that the issue was more likely to be user error. Essentially, drivers may have hit the accelerator when they thought they were hitting the brake.
The NTSB seems more willing to rule against Tesla, including a finding that Autopilot was partially at fault in a 2018 accident in California that killed the owner of the Model X involved. Because of this, Musk has been more hostile toward that regulatory agency. This seems to be a pattern with Musk’s dealing with regulators, as he has also aimed sharp comments at the FAA when it opened an investigation into the recent explosions of SpaceX’s Starship prototypes even though no one was injured or killed.
There may be some evidence that the sensors used by the Autopilot and FSD software can be tricked. Consumer Reports recently issued the results of tests that say Autopilot can be tricked into thinking that someone is in the driver’s seat when the seat is actually empty. It has issued a “Don’t try this at home” warning, however.
The Tesla website includes the disclaimer that the Autopilot is not capable of fully replacing a driver and operators of a Tesla vehicle should stay alert while using it. Full Self-Driving is still in beta and the company will sometimes remove testers from the beta program if there is evidence that they are not staying alert while using it. Such evidence may be captured with onboard interior cameras and sensors such as one that can detect whether a driver’s hands are on the wheel.
The text of the Democratic Senators’ letter to the NHTSA can be seen here. The letter cites both the reports of local law enforcement personnel and Elon Musk’s tweet on the matter.