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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Federal authorities leave it up to automakers to assess the safety of their own automated driving systems, but mounting investigations into Tesla crashes suggest regulators need to get tougher.

Why it matters: Tesla cars cannot drive themselves, but some owners are too trusting of their car's Autopilot assisted-driving technology and fail to stay alert. If the government finds Teslas are more prone to crashes than other vehicles with similar systems, it could determine Autopilot has a defect that poses "an unreasonable risk to safety" and order the company to conduct a recall.

What's happening: Two federal agencies are investigating a March 1 crash in which a man died when his Tesla Model 3 drove beneath a semitrailer that was crossing a Florida roadway near Delray Beach.

  • Investigators for the National Transportation Safety Board and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration want to find out whether Autopilot was engaged at the time of the crash.
  • The accident is eerily similar to one that occurred in May 2016 near Gainesville, Florida, in which Autopilot was turned on but neither the car nor the driver reacted to a truck crossing the road.
  • A Tesla spokesperson had no comment on the most recent incident.

Tesla is under the microscope for other crashes, too. NHTSA is investigating a Feb. 24 fatal crash and fire involving a Tesla Model S sedan in nearby Davie, Florida.

"It seems like Tesla is the one car company that’s having troubles like this, despite the fact that they are not the only company with similar technology on the road," says former acting NHTSA administrator David Friedman, now VP of advocacy for Consumer Reports.

  • An NHTSA spokesperson confirmed there are no active defect investigations regarding other manufacturers' vehicles with automated driving technology.

What they're saying: Tesla's website says its vehicles "are engineered to be the safest on the road," and it posts quarterly updates on its safety record.

Between the lines: NHTSA's own guidance says an unreasonable risk to safety may occur if a manufacturer fails to account for "any foreseeable misuse" of their technology by a driver who is distracted or inattentive.

Yes, but: NHTSA found no defect when it investigated the 2016 fatal crash in Florida.

  • NTSB, on the other hand, found that Autopilot's design had contributed to the crash by allowing the driver to activate the system even on roads where it wasn't designed to operate safely and by failing to have a driver monitoring system to ensure he was alert.
  • The catch: NTSB is an independent agency with no regulatory power.
  • The power rests with NHTSA, but sources tell us the agency, currently under deputy administrator Heidi King, is coping with management churn and has been accused by consumer advocates of being too cozy with the industry.
"The agency responsible for seeing that this technology is shepherded safely has totally abdicated its responsibility to industry."
— Jason Levine, executive director, Center for Auto Safety

What to watch: The facts of Tesla's crashes are still under investigation, but with the cases piling up, NHTSA could be under pressure to act.

Go deeper

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Investors made clear what companies they think will be winners and which will be losers in President Joe Biden's economy on Wednesday, selling out of gun makers, pot purveyors, private prison operators and payday lenders, and buying up gambling, gaming, beer stocks and Big Tech.

What happened: Private prison operator CoreCivic and private prison REIT Geo fell by 7.8% and 4.1%, respectively, while marijuana ETF MJ dropped 2% and payday lenders World Acceptance and EZCorp each fell by more than 1%.

Mike Allen, author of AM
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Biden-Harris, Day 1: What mattered most

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The Axios experts help you sort significance from symbolism. Here are the six Day 1 actions by President Biden that matter most.

Driving the news: Today, on his first full day, Biden translates his promise of a stronger federal response to the pandemic into action — starting with 10 executive orders and other directives, Caitlin Owens writes.

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Read: Pete Buttigieg's opening statement ahead of confirmation hearing

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Pete Buttigieg, President Biden's nominee to lead the Transportation Department, will tell senators he plans to prioritize the health and safety of public transportation systems during the pandemic — and look to infrastructure projects to rebuild the economy — according to a copy of his prepared remarks obtained by Axios.

Driving the news: Buttigieg will testify at 10 a.m. ET before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. He is expected to face a relatively smooth confirmation process, though GOP lawmakers may press him on "green" elements of Biden's transportation proposals.