Home Business News US Auto Regulator Opens Tesla Crash Probe in Utah With Driver Claiming Autopilot Use

US Auto Regulator Opens Tesla Crash Probe in Utah With Driver Claiming Autopilot Use

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The aftermath of a May 11 collision in which a Tesla Model S sedan crashed into a fire department vehicle that was stopped at a red light in the Salt Lake City suburb of South Jordan, Utah.


Photo:

South Jordan Police Department via Associated Press

U.S. safety investigators on Wednesday opened the third active investigation of a

Tesla
Inc.


TSLA 0.81%

vehicle that crashed while the driver-assistance system Autopilot was said to be in use.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it will investigate a crash that occurred last Friday in South Jordan, Utah, where a Model S sedan driving about 60 miles an hour rammed into the back of a fire department truck stopped at a red light. The 28-year-old driver, who sustained a broken ankle, said Autopilot was engaged and that she was looking at her phone before the collision, according to local police.

NHTSA said its special crash investigations team will gather information on the collision and take appropriate action depending on its review. This team generally tries to improve advanced safety systems within the auto industry, according to the agency’s website. NHTSA oversees vehicle makers and routinely investigates auto crashes, helping to enforce auto safety standards and regulations.

“When using Autopilot, drivers are continuously reminded of their responsibility to keep their hands on the wheel and maintain control of the vehicle at all times,” a Tesla spokeswoman said in a statement. “Tesla has always been clear that Autopilot doesn’t make the car impervious to all accidents.”

On Monday, Tesla Chief Executive

Elon Musk

criticized the media in a Twitter post for its coverage of the Utah accident. “It’s super messed up that a Tesla crash resulting in a broken ankle is front page news and the ~40,000 people who died in US auto accidents alone in past year get almost no coverage,” Mr. Musk wrote. 

A fatal crash in March involving a Model X sport-utility vehicle renewed scrutiny of Autopilot, which uses cameras, sensors and radar to control vehicle speed and steering under certain conditions, but doesn’t take over full driving control.

In that March 23 crash, under federal investigation, the car slammed into a highway barrier south of San Francisco, killing the driver. Tesla said Autopilot was activated but that the driver received several system warnings to put his hands on the wheel and had at least five seconds to do so before the collision. 

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U.S. investigators also are looking into an incident in January in Los Angeles where a Model S rammed into the back of a stopped firetruck on the freeway. The driver told the fire department the car was using Autopilot at the time.

Tesla contends Autopilot makes its cars safer than conventional automobiles and emphasizes that it is the driver’s responsibility to stay alert and maintain control of the vehicle while Autopilot is on. Automotive specialists say drivers can have a hard time paying attention while using partly autonomous driving systems like Autopilot.

The Wall Street Journal reported on Monday that Tesla has long considered adding sensors that would ensure drivers look at the road or keep their hands on the wheel, but executives rejected the ideas because of costs and concerns the technology was ineffective. Mr. Musk said this week that Tesla rejected adding sensors to track a driver’s eyes because it was ineffective, not because of the cost. 

U.S. safety regulators have said they also are reviewing battery fires stemming from Tesla crashes, including one earlier this month involving a Model S that killed two teenagers in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. 

Write to Tim Higgins at Tim.Higgins@WSJ.com

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