DETROIT — U.S. security researchers want to know why Tesla failed to file recall documents when it updated Autopilot software to better identify parked emergency services, escalating a simmering clash between the automaker and regulators.
In a letter to Tesla, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on Tuesday told the electric car maker that it must recall vehicles if an update over the internet fixes a safety flaw.
“Any manufacturer that issues an over-the-air update that fixes a defect that poses an unreasonable risk to motor vehicle safety must submit an accompanying recall notice to the NHTSA in a timely manner,” the agency said in a letter to Eddie Gates, Tesla’s director. of field quality.
The agency also instructed Tesla to provide information about its “Full Self-Driving” software that is being tested on public roads with some owners.
The latest clash is another sign of escalating tensions between Tesla and the agency that controls partially automated driving systems.
In August, the agency opened an investigation into Tesla’s Autopilot after receiving multiple reports of vehicles colliding with emergency services with flashing warning lights being stopped on highways.
The letter was posted on the NHTSA’s website early Wednesday. A message was left early Wednesday requesting comment from Tesla, which has dissolved its media relations department.
NHTSA opened a formal investigation into Autopilot in August after a series of collisions involving parked emergency vehicles. The investigation covers 765,000 vehicles, nearly everything Tesla has sold in the US since the start of the 2014 model year. Of the dozen crashes identified as part of the investigation, 17 people were injured and one was killed.
According to the agency, Tesla made an Internet-based software update in late September intended to improve vehicle emergency lighting detection in low-light conditions. The agency says Tesla is aware that federal law requires automakers to issue a recall if they discover any vehicles or equipment have safety flaws.
The agency asked for information about Tesla’s “Emergency Light Detection Update” being sent to select vehicles “with the stated purpose of detecting flashing emergency vehicle lights in low light conditions and then responding to said detection with driver alerts and changes to the vehicle’s lighting conditions.” vehicle speed while Autopilot is engaged.”
The letter asks for a list of events that motivated the software update, which vehicles it was sent to, and whether the measures apply to Tesla’s entire fleet.
It also asks the Palo Alto, California company whether it plans to file recall documents. “If not, please provide Tesla’s technical and/or legal basis for denying it,” the agency asks.
When automakers discover a safety flaw, they must notify the NHTSA within five business days and are required to initiate recalls. NHTSA is monitoring recalls to ensure they affect all affected vehicles and that automakers are making efforts to contact all owners.
Tesla must comply with the request by Nov. 1 or the court must face a lawsuit and civil fines in excess of $114 million, the agency wrote.
In a separate special order sent to Tesla, the NHTSA says the company may be taking steps to hinder the agency’s access to safety information by requiring drivers testing “Full Self-Driving” software to sign nondisclosure agreements.
The warrant requires Tesla to describe the nondisclosure agreements and how they are signed by Tesla drivers. The company must also say whether Tesla requires owners of vehicles equipped with Autopilot to agree to “conditions that would prevent or discourage vehicle owners from sharing information about or discussing any aspect of Autopilot with anyone other than Tesla.”
Responses must be given under oath by a Tesla official. If Tesla does not fully comply, the injunction says the matter can be referred to the Justice Department for legal action to enforce responses. It also threatens more fines in excess of $114 million.
Tesla has said that neither vehicle equipped with “Full Self-Driving” nor Autopilot can drive itself. It warns drivers to be ready to intervene at all times.
It was unclear how Tesla and Mercurial CEO Elon Musk will respond to the NHTSA’s demands. The company and Musk have a long history of sparring with federal regulators.
In January, Tesla refused a request from NHTSA to recall about 135,000 vehicles because their touchscreens could go dark. The agency said the screens were a security flaw because backup cameras and windshield defrosters could be disabled.
A month later, after the NHTSA began holding a public hearing and taking Tesla to court, the company approved the recall. Tesla said it would replace computer processors for the screens, although it insisted there was no security risk.
Musk fought with the Securities and Exchange Commission over a 2018 tweet claiming he had funding to take Tesla private when that funding was not secured. He and the company agreed to pay $20 million each to settle allegations that he misled investors. Later, the SEC tried to contempt Musk in court for tweeting a misleading projection of the number of cars Tesla would produce. Musk called the SEC the “shortseller enrichment commission,” distorting the meaning of the acronym. Short sellers bet that a stock price will fall.
The NHTSA’s new requirements point to a stricter regulatory stance under President Joe Biden on the safety of automated vehicles compared to previous administrations. The agency seemed reluctant to regulate the new technology for fear of hindering adoption of the potentially life-saving systems.
The National Transportation Safety Board, which also investigated some of the 2016 Tesla crashes, recommended that NHTSA and Tesla limit Autopilot use to areas where it can operate safely. The NTSB has also recommended that the NHTSA demand from Tesla a better system to ensure drivers pay attention. The NTSB has no enforcement powers and can only make recommendations to other federal agencies.