U.S. agency sought answers from Tesla on Autopilot in April 2021

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WASHINGTON — U.S. auto safety regulators asked Tesla in April 2021 about incidents where its cars hit parked emergency vehicles while using Autopilot, months before it opened a formal investigation, according to a letter recently made public.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) sent Tesla an eight-page letter requesting a meeting and response “to properly assess these recent incidents and better understand how Tesla’s planned updates would increase driver attention.” and would reduce the risk of collisions with stationary emergency vehicles.”

NHTSA opened a formal preliminary assessment of 765,000 vehicles in August after about a dozen crashes that involved Tesla cars slamming, halted emergency vehicles when using the Autopilot driver assistance system. Earlier this month, NHTSA upgraded its probe to a total of 830,000 Tesla vehicles with Autopilot for technical analysis, a required step before it could request a recall. NHTSA said this month it had identified six additional crashes involving emergency services.

The NHTSA has not released Tesla’s response, which is due to be filed by May 2021. Tesla has repeatedly requested confidential treatment for submissions to the NHTSA.

Tesla, which has dissolved its press service, did not respond to a request for comment. NHTSA did not immediately answer whether Tesla met with the agency after April’s request.

The April 2021 letter asked for details on Autopilot’s sales, usage and crash statistics, any planned updates, and a “detailed timeline of changes made to driver status monitoring.” It included seven emergency vehicle crashes reported by the NHTSA in August and also sought answers about five other “inattentive driver” accidents.

NHTSA raised questions about the driver’s actions in those crashes and “any effect Tesla’s recently proposed countermeasures would have had on the outcome of the incident.”

The auto safety agency said in June that there was evidence that drivers had complied with Tesla’s warning strategy that tries to grab driver attention in most of the crashes investigated, raising questions about its effectiveness.

NHTSA has reports of 16 accidents, including seven injury incidents and one death, involving Tesla vehicles in Autopilot that hit stationary first responders and road maintenance vehicles.

Tesla says Autopilot allows vehicles to automatically brake and steer within their lanes, but they are unable to drive themselves.

(Reporting by David Shepardson in Washington; editing by Matthew Lewis)