Tesla Autopilot - view of dashboard and touchscreen

Tesla’s US safety recall highlights concerns over Level 2 assistance systems

  • December 21, 2023

Tesla is recalling nearly every vehicle it has sold in the United States to adapt driver monitoring systems and the functionality of its driver assistance systems known as ‘Autopilot’.  ETSC says the recall highlights a massive human factors problem of Level 2 driver assistance systems, where the driver remains fully in charge of the vehicle but can easily be lulled into a false sense that the vehicle is capable of driving itself.  The vehicles have not been recalled in Europe.

The European Union and several EU Member States do now regulate and approve Level 3 automated systems, where the vehicle takes over the driving task completely under specific circumstances on certain roads, but only a handful of cars on the market today are approved as Level 3 vehicles. Tesla vehicles sold in Europe are Level 2 only.  In fact, most new vehicles sold today have some sort of Level 2 system for automated cruise control and lane keeping, which can be activated almost anywhere, with varying levels of driver monitoring and features to keep the driver engaged in the driving task.  The EU will require distraction warning systems on new models from July 2024 – but, as ETSC has warned, the specifications are far too weak, and will not detect distraction from infotainment systems or mobile phones mounted on the dashboard.   

The EU is working on a regulation for Level 2 systems together with the UNECE regulatory body in Geneva.  

The European consumer vehicle safety testing organisation Euro NCAP carries out tests on Level 2 assisted driving systems and awards ratings based on how the systems keep drivers engaged, but these are voluntary, not regulatory, tests so it is possible for systems like Tesla’s Autopilot to be sold despite substandard driver engagement monitoring.  In a 2020 report, Euro NCAP said: “Tesla’s system name Autopilot is inappropriate as it suggests full automation” and “while the Tesla is equipped with an internal camera, it is not used for Driver Monitoring relying only on steering wheel input for driver engagement.”  Euro NCAP said the Tesla system leads to ‘possible overreliance’.    

The US-market Tesla recall has been requested by the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), following a long-term investigation of crashes that occurred when Tesla’s Level 2 driver assistance system was engaged.  The recall also follows a number of US National Transport Safety Board (NTSB) investigations that made recommendations for changes to the way Tesla’s system functions.  The US consumer organisation Consumer Reports found in its initial tests that the recall, which is delivered as an over-the-air software update, did not seem to affect the types of roads Autopilot can be activated on.  Furthermore, Autopilot was still operational when the in-cabin camera for monitoring driver distraction was covered up by the user.  The organisation says further updates are needed, and are long overdue.    

ETSC has been calling for several years for an EU agency to independently investigate crashes involving assisted driving systems.  No data are available on the number of crashes involving such systems in the EU.   

Frank Mütze, vehicle safety specialist at ETSC said: “It’s positive that the US is starting to take the risks of Level 2 systems seriously.  At the same time, very little is known in Europe about the number of crashes that Level 2 systems are contributing to on our roads. An EU agency, with powers to carry out and coordinate crash investigations, is urgently needed.”