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Does recall put the brakes on autonomous taxis?

Tesla recall

As trials continue to pave the way for driverless taxis, one manufacturer is recalling hundreds of thousands of vehicles following concerns about its driver-assistance software.

Pilot schemes for autonomous taxis have been carried out on public streets in a variety of major cities, including San Francisco, Tokyo and China’s Wuhan province, with the vehicles having to be licensed and have taxi insurance in place before being hailed by passengers using an app.

Trials on private tracks have also taken place in the UK, where lawmakers want responsibility if anything goes wrong to lie with the vehicle and software manufacturers.

In the US, where the responsibility lies with the driver of the vehicle, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has raised concerns about Tesla’s driver-assistance Full Self-Driving Beta software – which is seen as a step towards autonomous driving.

The Guardian reports that the company does not agree with the NHTSA findings, but has recalled 362,000 vehicles in the US to update the FSD software, which the NHTSA said “did not adequately adhere to traffic safety laws and could cause crashes”.

Despite assurances from Elon Musk’s pioneering EV manufacturer, the authority said it is concerned that the software would allow vehicles to “exceed speed limits or travel through intersections in an unlawful or unpredictable manner increases the risk of a crash”.

Both Tesla and NHTSA say FSD’s advanced driving features do not make the cars autonomous and require drivers to pay attention at all times. The driver-assistance features are seen as a crucial step towards autonomous vehicles of the future.

Although it disputes the NHTSA concerns, The Guardian reports that Tesla has agreed to release a free software update, and emphasised that while it has received 18 warranty claims, it is “not aware of any injuries or deaths that may be related to the recall issue”.

The vehicles involved in the recall are the 2016-2023 Model S, Model X, 2017-2023 Model 3, and 2020-2023 Model Y vehicles equipped with FSD Beta software or pending installation.

The Guardian reported: “The move is a rare intervention by federal regulators in a real-world testing program that the company sees as crucial to the development of cars that can drive themselves. FSD Beta is used by hundreds of thousands of Tesla customers.”

It said the NHTSA had launched an investigation in 2021 into 830,000 Tesla vehicles with driver assistance system Autopilot following a number of crashes with parked emergency vehicles. As reported with the recent Wuhan trial, there can be issues with the autonomous software identifying unusual vehicles such as ambulances and fire engines in unpredictable, real-life scenarios.

The Guardian says the focus of the US investigation is whether Tesla vehicles adequately ensure drivers are paying attention and are not over-reliant on the driver-assistance features. And despite the recall, the NHTSA said its “investigation into Tesla’s Autopilot and associated vehicle systems remains open and active”.

Tesla said in “certain rare circumstances … the feature could potentially infringe upon local traffic laws or customs while executing certain driving maneuvers”.

The NHTSA said possible situations where the problem could occur include “traveling or turning through certain intersections during a yellow traffic light and making a lane change out of certain turn-only lanes to continue traveling straight”.

The authority added that “the system may respond insufficiently to changes in posted speed limits or not adequately account for the driver’s adjustment of the vehicle’s speed to exceed posted speed limits”.

While different countries are at different stages of autonomous taxi trials on the streets, it is crucial that safety always comes first.

Lessons learned during the trial and development stages will help prevent problems arising when driverless taxis are free to compete for fares alongside the private and public hire taxis we already know.

As reported in the San Francisco trial, although the autonomous cab used precise calculations to avoid obstacles and other vehicles, passengers said it had been a white-knuckle ride, with the software maneuvering the taxi more like a fighter jet in combat than a gentle cab ride.

All information is correct at time of publication. Information provided within this article may have changed over time. No responsibility for its accuracy or correctness is assumed by John Patons Insurance Services or any of its employees.