The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said Wednesday that it is investigating a Tesla crash in Newport Beach, California, this month that killed three people in the vehicle and injured three construction workers.
The NHTSA team that conducts in-depth crash investigations is examining the crash’s circumstances, including whether Tesla’s driver-assist technology was active during the crash. Local police, who are also investigating, have declined to say if Tesla’s proprietary Autopilot system was active.
The administration conducts many crash investigations. Some are purposefully selected, such as this Tesla crash, while others are selected at random for examination to identify safety problems and assess how effective motor vehicle standards are.
NHTSA’s in-depth crash investigation team has 42 open investigations related to driver-assist technology, 35 of which involve Tesla. The Newport Beach crash investigation was requested by NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation, which identifies unsafe motor vehicles and manages recalls.
Tesla did not respond to a request for comment.
The Newport Beach crash occurred at 12:45 a.m. on May 12. A Tesla Model S struck a curb on the Pacific Coast Highway and collided with construction equipment, according to Newport Beach police. Three construction workers suffered minor, non-life-threatening injuries.
Tesla’s most well-known driver-assist technology, Autopilot, delights some drivers as it steers the vehicle and keeps pace with traffic in some circumstances, reducing driver fatigue. Some drivers say they’re more comfortable now taking longer road trips. But the system has limits, and has long been criticized by safety experts. Tesla vehicles using its driver-assist technology have had hundreds of reports of unexpected braking, which NHTSA is already investigating.
Tesla has long claimed that vehicles using Autopilot have a much lower rate of crashes. The company says it records a higher rate of crashes when Autopilot technology isn’t active than when it is, but the data has not been independently audited and verified. Traffic safety experts have also cautioned for years that Tesla is making an apples-to-oranges comparison because Autopilot is much more likely to be used on limited access highways, where crash rates per mile are already lower.
NHTSA conducts its in-depth investigations so that the auto safety industry can make improvements. It examines crashes that are recommended to it by law enforcement, insurance companies, government agencies, vehicle owners, engineers, medical personnel and Department of Transportation employees.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk has said for years that fully self-driving Teslas were just a year or two away. Autonomous driving has been a harder challenge than expected for everyone in the auto and tech industries, causing widespread delays. Tesla itself has yet to remove the “Beta” label from its adaptive cruise control.