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Senate committee wants briefing by Tesla on Autopilot

Melissa Burden
The Detroit News

A U.S. Senate committee wants a briefing within two weeks from Tesla Motors Inc. about its Autopilot, an automated driving feature which was activated in a May fatal crash in Florida.

Sen. John Thune, R-South Dakota, who chairs the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, sent Tesla Chairman and CEO Elon Musk a letter Thursday seeking information on whether the Autopilot feature — which allows the car to steer, change lanes and manage speed for a driver — performed as intended in the crash and what the carmaker is doing to educate consumers about it.

“I request that you direct company representatives to brief committee staff on the details of this incident, including the technology that was in use at the time, Tesla’s actions in response, and the company’s cooperation with NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration), by no later than July 29,” Thune wrote in the letter.

Joshua Brown, an Ohio resident, was killed in a Tesla Model S that crashed in Williston, Florida, on May 7 with the Autopilot mode engaged. Regulators and police say a semitrailer turned left in front of the Model S and the car’s roof struck the underside of the trailer and passed underneath. Autopilot also was engaged on a Tesla Model X during another crash Saturday when the SUV hit railing wires along the side of a Montana highway.

Tesla could not immediately be reached for comment on the letter.

Thune, in the letter, says he wants to know what actions Tesla has taken and plans to take in response to the fatal crash, including the company’s efforts to “ensure the Autopilot technology was deployed safely in this instance.” He also wants specifics on what Tesla is doing to educate consumers on the benefits and limits of the Autopilot technology.

The senator said he generally supports autonomous vehicle technology for its potential to decrease accidents and fatalities due to driver error.

“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,” Thune wrote.

NHTSA also has asked Tesla to respond to its questions about the fatal crash by Aug. 26, but wants its highest priority questions answered by July 29. The National Transportation Safety Board also is investigating the Florida crash.

On Thursday, Consumer Reports called for Tesla to disable the Autopilot feature until the system is updated to confirm a driver’s hands remain on the steering wheel at all times. The consumer advocate also wants Tesla to rename the feature to make it clear that vehicles are not fully self-driving cars.

Musk previously said he would not disable the feature.

Tesla confirmed that the fatal crash in May was in Autopilot mode and neither the driver nor the system sensed the truck’s trailer: “Neither Autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor-trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied,” the company said in a blog posting on June 30.


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