A key Senate chairman is seeking information about the autopilot technology that was being used in a Tesla self-driving car during a recent fatal crash.
In a letter to Tesla CEO Elon Musk, Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneSinema scuttles hopes for filibuster reform How a nice-guy South Dakota senator fell into a Trump storm Democrats: Don't reject GOP offer to fix electoral count law MORE (R-S.D.) asked about the company’s efforts to ensure the autonomous feature was deployed as intended and whether Tesla is working to educate other customers about the use, benefits and limitations of the technology.
“While investigations are still ongoing, questions remain as to whether the technology performed as intended and whether this tragic accident could have been avoided,” wrote Thune, the chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration launched a preliminary evaluation of Tesla’s autopilot technology after a Florida driver who was deploying the technology died in a crash — the first-ever fatality associated with an autonomous driving system.
Another crash with a vehicle using autopilot in Pennsylvania sparked a second investigation, although no one was killed or injured in that incident.
Tesla’s autopilot feature is considered “semi-autonomous” because a driver is still required to be behind the wheel, but the car can change lanes, brake, steer, accelerate, decelerate and avoid obstacles on its own.
Tesla, which makes clear to drivers that the new technology is still in a public beta-testing phase, has maintained it has no reason to believe autopilot was the cause of the Pennsylvania crash.
But the accidents have raised questions about whether the feature lulls drivers into a false sense of security.
Autonomous vehicle advocates worry the crashes will stoke fear around driverless cars at a time when federal regulators and states are beginning to craft policies on the emerging technology.
Thune emphasized that he supports efforts to advance self-driving vehicles but added that it is “essential to use lessons learned from this incident to improve safety technologies, ensure they perform as advertised, and make certain that consumers are properly educated about their use.”
“More than ninety percent of these tragedies are linked to human error, including driver intoxication and distraction,” the lawmaker wrote. “Technological advancements have the potential to reduce that number significantly.”