A Tesla, using its partially automated system, hit a Florida Highway Patrol cruiser that was parked on the side of a highway near downtown Orlando Saturday. The state trooper had just pulled over to assist a disabled vehicle. 

In the wake of the investigation announced by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration August 16, and the investigations before that launched in January and March of this year, the latest crash may come as another jolt to the company and as a prod to regulators.

Tesla Autopilot Questions Continue

The January investigation is looking into “sudden unintended acceleration” incidents.

The investigation that started in March led to a recall of more than 5,530 vehicles because of poorly attached sea belts. 

The August investigation was specifically targeted at crashes involving Tesla models and emergency vehicles. The crash in Orlando Saturday strengthens the case that further safeguards will be necessary in the development of Tesla’s systems, especially as they relate to stopped emergency vehicles. 

Shortly before 5 a.m., on the westbound side of I-4, the Tesla Model 3 hit the cruiser on its left side, and then hit the disabled vehicle, the one receiving assistance. Both the driver of the Tesla and that of the disabled vehicle suffered minor injuries.

Though the state trooper was not injured, the FHP spokesperson said the Tesla “narrowly missed” him.    

So far there has been no determination whether the Tesla autopilot caused or contributed to the incident. The Model 3 is one of the models of Tesla that are within the scope of the NHTSA, as are Models S, X, and Y. 

Tesla Not Affected in Early Trading

There was no negative reaction from the stock market at the opening of trading Monday morning. 

Tesla (NASDAQ: TSLA) closed Friday at 711.92. It opened Monday at 714.72.

Earlier investigations, though, have had negative impacts on Tesla stock, sometimes substantial. In mid-August on news of the NHTSA investigation, the price fell 5% that morning.

Recently, Senator Richard Blumenthal (D – Conn.) and Senator Ed Markey (D – Mass.) have asked the Federal Trade Commission Chairperson, Lina Khan, to look into “potentially deceptive and unfair” advertising practices on Tesla’s part, relating to its driving automation systems. 

Two Senators’ Reactions

The two Senators say that Tesla and Elon Musk, its CEO, have repeatedly overstated the capability of the automation systems, in ways that “demonstrate a deeply concerning disregard for the safety of those on the road” and that these statements “require real accountability.” 

Lina Khan is a new appointee of President Biden, known for her work as an academic fellow at Columbia Law School. She may be more receptive to the concerns of Senators Blumenthal and Markey than her precursor as permanent chair of the FTC, Joseph Simons, who took office in 2018 as President Trump’s nominee. (There was an acting chair, Rebecca Slaughter, between Simons and Khan.)    

Three years ago, a consumer advocacy group, the Center for Auto Safety, wrote the FTC under and asked that it investigate “deceptive and unfair practices in advertising and marketing of the ‘autopilot’ feature offered in Tesla Motor Vehicles.”  Nothing came of that under Simons.

Tesla’s website says that drivers should not take their hands off the wheel while using the autopilot. Indeed, when drivers engage the autopilot, they are reminded by the screen to “keep your hands on the wheel.”  

From the point of view of the individuals who own and drive Teslas the lesson from this incident ought to be clear. No machine can replace a driver’s full attention while driving, obeying the rules of the road, and remaining vigilant about hazards on the street.