NHTSA sends team to Detroit to investigate Tesla-semi crash, driver charged

Kalea Hall
The Detroit News

Detroit — The driver of a Tesla SUV that crashed into a semi last week in Detroit is being charged with reckless driving causing serious injury, the Detroit Police Department said Tuesday.

The police will meet with the representatives from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration later this week because the agency is investigating the crash of the 2021 Tesla Model Y and a tractor trailer that took place last Thursday on the city’s southwest side.

"NHTSA is aware of the violent crash that occurred on March 11 in Detroit involving a Tesla and a tractor trailer," the agency said in a statement Tuesday. "We have launched a Special Crash Investigation team to investigate the crash."

Tesla vehicles have been under scrutiny after other crashes similar to this one. In two different Florida crashes, Teslas drove beneath tractor-trailers, causing two deaths. In both crashes, in 2016 and 2019, the cars were being driven while using Tesla's Autopilot partially automated driving software.

But in the case of the Detroit crash, Detroit Assistant Police Chief David LeValley on Tuesday said: "All the indications we have are that the vehicle was not in autopilot mode, that the driver was in control of the vehicle at the time of the crash," noting that the driver indicated he was driving and there's some video evidence that shows "some evasive maneuvers" being made before the crash occurred.

NHTSA, the Detroit police and Michigan State Police will remove the black box and the SD card from the Tesla "to determine for sure whether the vehicle was in autopilot or not," LeValley said. 

Police are waiting on toxicology results. But it does appear "speed was a major factor in the collision," LeValley said. The Tesla drove through the intersection at Waterman and Fort streets, striking a semi-truck trailer and causing the Tesla to become wedged under the trailer. 

The 21-year-old male driver was hospitalized after the crash, but is believed to be out of the hospital now. A 21-year-old female passenger is still hospitalized with "pretty serious head trauma," LeValley said.

The driver's name will be released after he is arraigned. 

Tesla has said previously that Autopilot and “full self-driving” are driver-assistance systems and that the driver must be ready to intervene at all times.

But the company has been criticized by the National Transportation Safety Board for failing to adequately monitor drivers to make sure they are paying attention. The NTSB, which investigates crashes and makes recommendations, also criticized Tesla for allowing the system to work on roads that it can't handle.

In a Feb. 1 letter to the Department of Transportation, which includes NHTSA, NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt urged the agency to enact regulations governing driver assist systems as well as testing of autonomous vehicles. NHTSA has relied mainly on voluntary guidelines for the vehicles, taking a hands-off approach so it won’t hinder development of new safety technology.

He wrote that Tesla is using its owners to test “full self-driving” software on public roads with limited oversight or reporting requirements. “Because NHTSA has put in place no requirements, manufacturers can operate and test vehicles virtually anywhere, even if the location exceeds the AV (autonomous vehicle) control system’s limitations,” Sumwalt wrote.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.