Opinion: Feds Should Reel in Tesla, Self-Driving Car Industry

In April, an allegedly self-driving Tesla burst into flames after crashing into a tree in Texas. Two passengers died in the wreckage. Federal authorities should consider regulating the autonomous vehicle industry now.

Cars driving on a freeway
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(TNS) — It is past time for the feds to take the wheel on an investigation of so-called self-driving vehicles.

A recent fatal crash of a Tesla near Houston — a crash in which no one was behind the wheel of the vehicle — has sparked the interest of two federal agencies. What took so long?

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board said April 19 they would send teams to investigate the April 17 crash on a residential road that killed two men who were inside a Tesla Model S. One man was found in the passenger seat and the second man was in the back seat.

Of utmost interest is whether the Tesla "autopilot" system was in use. And therein lies one of the problems: The system is not fully automated, as the name implies. It is partially automated. It can keep a car in its lane, maintain a distance from cars in front of it and can sometimes change lanes automatically.

Federal oversight of Tesla has been, to date, lax. The idea: Stand back and allow automakers to proceed unhindered in the development of exciting new automated driving features.

It is a short-term approach with long-term impacts that actually could undermine the ultimate goal: development of a new high-tech vehicle that people want to own. But people won't be willing to lay cash on the barrel head if they can't be certain of the safety of enhanced vehicles. And the rest of the traveling public has a keen interest in the safety of the vehicles sharing the roadways.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has the authority — and the responsibility — to regulate automakers and seek recalls for defective vehicles. And the National Transportation Safety Board is responsible for overall transportation safety. The agencies must do their jobs and not rely solely on voluntary safety compliance from tech and auto companies.

In the past few years, there have been more than two dozen Tesla crashes.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk, a brilliant business innovator and salesman, should be reined in. His use of the word "autopilot" is, at best, a misnomer, and arguably amounts to false advertising.

There may be a market for truly self-driving vehicles, but the industry isn't yet able to meet demand. The day likely will come and demand likely will be brisk — if the public can be sure of the safety of vehicular innovations. Stifling advancement in that industry should not be the overriding concern of the agencies commissioned to ensure highway and transportation safety.

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