When you see emergency lights flashing, the rule of the road is to move over.
Now a federal investigation is focused on why some vehicles using Automated Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) did just the opposite. One of the crashes included in the investigation happened in Connecticut.
The incident on December 7, 2019, was recorded by Connecticut State Police Trooper Myles Fritzinger’s body and cruiser dash cameras. NBC Connecticut Investigates obtained the video through a public records request.
Fritzinger was stopped on I-95 in Norwalk helping a driver involved in a crash when a Tesla Model 3 crashed into the back of Fritzinger’s cruiser, pushing it toward the trooper. Fritzinger narrowly avoids being hit.
The man behind the wheel of the Tesla told police it was on Autopilot.
The crash is one of a dozen involving Teslas and stopped emergency vehicles that prompted the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to open an investigation in August.
In each case, NHTSA said the lights on the emergency vehicles were flashing and, in each case, the Tesla was actively engaged in Autopilot or Traffic Aware Cruise Control.
According to NHTSA, 17 people were injured in the crashes in question and one person died.
Stamford attorney Mark Sherman represents the man who hit Fritzinger’s cruiser.
Sherman said his client, “was really not aware of how dangerous this feature could be,” and said the name Autopilot is misleading.
“It's either auto where it does it itself, or it's manual, where you need to be more actively involved,” Sherman said. “And, I believe when you buy a state of the art, cutting edge machine like this Tesla, it really needs to be made clear to the driver, what's required on this feature?”
According to Tesla’s website, Autopilot enables the car to steer, accelerate and brake automatically within its lane. Tesla says the feature still requires driver to keep their hands on the wheel and be ready to take control at any time.
A few weeks after the investigation was announced, Tesla quietly rolled out an update for its vehicles to address the problem, prompting NHTSA to ask why the company did not issue a recall.
In a letter dated October 12, 2021, NHTSA reminded Tesla that, “Any manufacturer issuing an over-the-air update that mitigates a defect that poses an unreasonable risk to motor vehicle safety is required to timely file an accompanying recall notice to NHTSA.”
NHTSA ordered Tesla to submit detailed information about the vehicles involved in each crash, including the technology used to detect emergency responder vehicles, and the timing of the last driver engagement warning before the crash. The agency also asked Tesla to determine whether the update would have changed the outcome of any of the incidents in question had it been operational at the time of collision.
A memo dated October 22, 2021 reveals that Tesla requested everything it turns over be kept confidential.
The investigation into accidents like the one in Connecticut is a signal NHTSA is taking a tougher stance on automated vehicle safety than it has previously. It could lead to a recall or other enforcement action.
Auto safety watchdog Sean Kane believes the Autopilot investigation should have come long before the technology ever hit the road.
“You’ve got the tail wagging the dog. You’re trying to chase down those problems and fix it after that fact. And after the fact means deaths and injuries are occurring on the roadways that could’ve been prevented,” he said.
Last month, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) called out Tesla for ignoring safety recommendations it made in four years ago.
In 2017, the NTSB urged Tesla and other automakers to limit the use of ADAS to areas where it can safely operate and to add safeguards to ensure the system cannot be misused.
Unlike NHTSA, the NTSB has no regulatory authority.
As automakers continue to roll out more automated features, NHTSA is reminding drivers, “Every available vehicle requires a human driver to be in control at all times and all state laws hold human drivers responsible for operation of their vehicles.”
NBC Connecticut Investigates reached out to Tesla via email and directly to the company’s CEO Elon Musk on Twitter but did not receive a response.
See more documentation from the investigation below: