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Feds investigating second crash involving Tesla's 'Autopilot'

In late January, a Tesla Model S sedan rear-ended a parked fire truck at around 65 mph. The driver wasn't paying attention, apparently because he had set the car to "Autopilot."

Unfortunately, this wasn't a Star Trek episode. Unlike autopilot systems in science fiction, Tesla's Autopilot does not fully take over for the driver, performing all navigation and collision avoidance. According to Tesla, the Autopilot is an "advanced driver assistance system" that is "intended for use only with a fully attentive driver." It is closer to a cruise control system than its name suggests, although it is supposed to signal the driver of an imminent collision.

On a scale of 0 to 5, the Tesla Autopilot is considered level 2. A level 5 system would be able to operate autonomously under virtually all circumstances. With a level 2 system, the driver is expected to constantly monitor their travel and be ready to take over at a moment's notice. It is meant for use only on Interstates with no intersections.

The National Transportation Safety Board and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are both investigating the circumstances of the crash, which took place near Culver City, California. According to reports, a fire truck had stopped to assist with a previous crash when the Tesla struck it. Incredibly, there were no injuries.

Neither agency would make detailed statements, but the safety agencies will likely seek to determine whether the Autopilot system was actually engaged like the driver told the highway patrol. If that can be verified, they will attempt to find out why the car's crash avoidance system did not detect the fire truck parked in its path.

This is the second time the two agencies have investigated crashes where Tesla's Autopilot was allegedly engaged. The first took place in Florida in May 2016. Another Model S was in Autopilot mode when it struck a truck that had made a left turn in the car's path. In that case, the NTSB determined that misuse of the Autopilot system played a major role in the crash. The driver was blamed for overreliance on technology.

The agency recommended that carmakers develop better systems to ensure drivers are paying full attention. Tesla's system detects the pressure of a driver's hands on the steering wheel, but the driver in the Florida crash said he had not kept his hands on the wheel and that did not prevent the Autopilot system from working. Tesla is reportedly taking steps to change that.

The NHTSA did not issue a recall or fine Tesla following the Florida crash. However, it warned carmakers not to imply that driver assistance systems can be treated like fully self-driving systems.

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