Federal investigators blast Tesla, call for stricter safety standards

Trees blur behind a sleek black crossover as it speeds down a highway.

Enlarge / A Tesla Model X on a highway. (credit: y_carfan / iStock / Getty)

The National Transportation Safety Board has filed comments blasting the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for its permissive regulation of driver-assistance systems. The letter was dated February 1 but was only spotted by CNBC’s Lora Kolodny on Friday. The letter repeatedly calls out Tesla’s Autopilot for its lax safety practices and calls on NHTSA to establish minimum standards for the industry.

The dispute between federal agencies is the result of Congress dividing responsibility for transportation safety among multiple agencies. NHTSA is the main regulator for highway safety: every car and light truck must comply with rules established by NHTSA. NTSB is a separate agency that just does safety investigations. When there’s a high-profile highway crash, NTSB investigators travel to the scene to figure out what happened and how to prevent it from happening again. NTSB also does plane crashes and train wrecks, allowing it to apply lessons from one mode of transportation to others.

This separation of responsibilities has contributed to a culture gap between the agencies. As the agency responsible for writing regulations, NHTSA has to trade safety off against other considerations like economic costs, the lobbying clout of automakers, and the risk of consumer backlash. In contrast, NTSB’s rulings are purely advisory, which frees the agency to doggedly advocate strong safety measures.

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