Transportation Secretary Buttigieg highlights 'real concern' over Tesla's Autopilot feature amid probe

Buttigieg warned drivers there is no feature on the market today that will let them stop paying attention behind the wheel

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said Tuesday there are concerns about the interaction between Tesla's partially automated driving system Autopilot and drivers, as the government investigates several crashes involving Tesla vehicles that have resulted in at least 14 deaths.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), a subagency of the Transportation Department, has investigated more than 30 crashes since 2016 in which Tesla drivers are suspected of using Autopilot and tuning out instead of paying attention behind the wheel. 

"There is a real concern that's not limited to the technology itself, but the interaction between the technology and the driver," Buttigieg told reporters Tuesday.

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"I cannot emphasize enough for every driver out there than an advanced driver assistance system is not an advanced driver replacement system," Buttigeig said. "There is nothing you can buy today that doesn't require you to be paying attention." 

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U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg speaks at a podium about summer air travel

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg holds a news conference about summer air travel at the department's headquarters on May 23, 2023 in Washington, DC. Airlines and regulators are preparing for the number of American travelers to eclipse or (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images / Getty Images)

NHTSA's investigation follows multiple reports of Tesla drivers using Autopilot and crashing into parked emergency vehicles that are tending to other crashes. The agency in February pressured Tesla into recalling nearly 363,000 vehicles with self-driving software because the automated system can break traffic laws. The problem was to be fixed with an online software update.

Tesla did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Autopilot is Tesla's advanced driver assistance system designed to enhance safety and convenience for drivers. Its functions include matching the speed of the car to surrounding traffic, assisted steering within clearly marked lanes, guiding the car on highway exit ramps, changing lanes and maneuvering through tight spaces in parking lots to meet the driver when summoned. 

The feature comes standard with new Tesla vehicles and the company says it is intended for use by "fully attentive" drivers with their hands on the wheel and who are fully prepared to takeover at any moment.

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A Tesla logo on a Model S is photographed inside of a Tesla dealership in New York, U.S., April 29, 2016. (REUTERS/Lucas Jackson/File Photo / Reuters Photos)

Tesla is beta testing a Full Self-Driving Capability that will be able to identify stop signs and traffic lights and handle most driving tasks. 

"The trend is very clearly toward full self-driving," CEO Elon Musk said in April. "And I hesitate to say this, but I think we’ll do it this year."

The system is being tested on public roads by as many as 400,000 Tesla owners. But the NHTSA said in documents that Tesla's self-driving feature can make unsafe actions such as traveling straight through an intersection from a turn-only lane, going through a yellow traffic light without proper caution or failing to respond to speed limit changes.

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Tesla Palo Alto California

Tesla vehicles are on display at a Tesla store in Palo Alto, California, United States.  (Photo by Yichuan Cao/NurPhoto via Getty Images / Fox News)

Buttigieg said the government is not looking for Tesla and other companies to show that emerging technologies are "1000% foolproof." 

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"The question is, how can we be assured that they will lead to a better set of safety outcomes than we have today? And given the very, very troubling safety record that human drivers have, this technology has a lot of promise," the secretary said. "We just have to make sure it unfolds in a responsible fashion." 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.