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Tesla And NHTSA Are Spoiling For A Fight

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The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Tesla have circled each other for years, like characters in an old western preparing for the big showdown. Who has gotten the better of their exchanges usually depends on who is in the White House; now, because there is a Democrat there again, it seems NHTSA has regained some teeth.

The latest scrap is over over-the-air updates, as NHTSA reminded Tesla that shadow recalls aren’t kosher.

From the Associated Press:

In a letter to Tesla, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration told the electric car maker Tuesday that it must recall vehicles if an over-the-internet update mitigates a safety defect.

“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,” the agency said in a letter to Eddie Gates, Tesla’s director of field quality.

The agency also ordered Tesla to provide information about its “Full Self-Driving” software that’s being tested on public roads with some owners.

NHTSA also says that Tesla knows better.

According to the agency, Tesla did an over-the-internet software update in late September that was intended to improve detection of emergency vehicle lights in low-light conditions. The agency says that Tesla is aware that federal law requires automakers to do a recall if they find out that vehicles or equipment have safety defects.

The agency asked for information about Tesla’s “Emergency Light Detection Update” that was sent to certain vehicles “with the stated purpose of detecting flashing emergency vehicle lights in low light conditions and then responding to said detection with driver alerts and changes to the vehicle speed while Autopilot is engaged.”

The letter asks for a list of events that motivated the software update, as well as what vehicles it was sent to and whether the measures extend to Tesla’s entire fleet.

It also asks the Palo Alto, California, company whether it intends to file recall documents. “If not, please furnish Tesla’s technical and/or legal basis for declining to do so,” the agency asks.

Tesla has to comply with the request by Nov. 1 or face court action and civil fines of more than $114 million, the agency wrote.

The potential fines don’t represent much of a stick here, as, for a company like Tesla, $114 million is not that much money. But NHTSA is also currently also investigating Tesla for crashes tied to Autopilot, and, while I’m a little skeptical that much will come of either, at this point, I’m just happy to see NHTSA doing something. It sure didn’t do jack shit under Trump.


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