NHTSA probes Tesla crashes involving motorcyclist fatalities


Close-up of a Tesla

By: Edward Solensky Jr. 

A recent article in Insurance Journal discusses how two crashes involving Teslas apparently running on Autopilot are drawing scrutiny from federal regulators and point to a potential new hazard on U.S. freeways: The partially automated vehicles may not stop for motorcycles. 

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration sent investigation teams to two crashes in which Teslas collided with motorcycles on freeways in the darkness. Both were fatal. NHTSA suspects that Tesla’s partially automated driver-assist system was in use in each.  

The first crash involving a motorcyclist occurred on July 7 at 4:47 a.m. on State Route 91, a freeway in Riverside, California. A Tesla Model Y SUV was traveling east in the high occupancy vehicle lane. Ahead of it was a rider on a green Yamaha V-Star motorcycle, the California Highway Patrol said in a statement. At some point, the vehicles collided, and the unidentified motorcyclist was ejected from the Yamaha. A CHP spokesperson said it is investigating whether the Tesla was operating on Autopilot. 

The second crash occurred on July 24 on Interstate 15 near Draper, Utah. A Tesla Model 3 sedan was behind a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, also in an HOV lane. “The driver of the Tesla did not see the motorcyclist and collided with the back of the motorcycle, which threw the rider from the bike,” the Utah Department of Public Safety said in a prepared statement. The rider died at the scene. The Tesla driver told authorities that he had the vehicle’s Autopilot setting on, the statement said. 

Since 2016, NHTSA has investigated 39 crashes in which automated driving systems are suspected of being in use, according to agency documents. Of those, 30 involved Teslas, including crashes that caused 19 deaths. 

In a June interview, new NHTSA Administrator Steven Cliff said the agency is intensifying efforts to understand risks posed by automated vehicles so it can decide what regulations may be necessary to protect drivers, passengers and pedestrians. There are no federal regulations that directly cover either self-driving vehicles or those with partially automated driver-assist systems such as Autopilot. 

NHTSA also has ordered all automakers and tech companies with automated driving systems to report all crashes. The agency released the first batch of data in June showing that nearly 400 reported crashes over a 10-month period, including 273 with Teslas. The agency cautioned against making comparisons, saying that Tesla’s telematics allow it to gather data in real time, much faster than other companies. 

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