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Tesla docs may signal tougher stance by federal auto-safety watchdog

Image of Tesla steering wheel wrapped in caution tape
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The federal government’s top auto-safety regulator has conducted sharply fewer defect investigations in recent years, but newly released documents involving Tesla's Autopilot suggest the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration may be getting more aggressive.

The big picture: Federal authorities leave it up to automakers to assess the safety of their vehicles, pushing for recalls only when a defect is detected. But as automated driving systems make their way into more vehicles, consumer advocates say increased federal oversight may be needed to ensure public safety.

Driving the news: NHTSA has issued at least 5 subpoenas since April 2018 for information about Tesla vehicle crashes and its Autopilot system, Bloomberg reported, citing NHTSA correspondence with the electric-car manufacturer after a FOIA request by PlainSite.

  • The exact intent of NHTSA's subpoenas is unclear.
  • Auto safety consultant Frank Borris, a former top NHTSA investigator, told Bloomberg the use of subpoenas is atypical and could mean the agency “is gathering information that would be supportive of a formal investigation.”
  • "If you do a subpoena, that's an investigation. Let's call it what it is," David Friedman, former acting administrator at NHTSA who's now at Consumer Reports, tells Axios.

Yes, but: NHTSA does not have an active defect probe into Tesla, nor will it necessarily launch one.

  • In a statement, NHTSA said that it's “committed to rigorous and appropriate safety oversight of the industry" and encouraged any potential safety issue be reported. 
  • Tesla defended the safety of its Model 3, citing NHTSA data and its own publicly reported safety statistics. In a statement, the company says they cooperate with NHTSA, but require subpoenas if consumer information is requested in order to protect their privacy.

Background: NHTSA stepped up its enforcement actions in 2015 in the wake of criticism that it missed clues about faulty ignition switches in GM cars that resulted in 124 deaths. Some other examples...

  • It made Fiat Chrysler pay a $105 million civil penalty, hire an independent safety monitor, and buy back hundreds of thousands of vehicles as part of a sweeping settlement of safety-related issues in 2015.
  • It also pushed for a recall of nearly 42 million vehicles from 19 different automakers to replace Takata airbags, in what NHTSA says is "the largest and most complex safety recall in U.S. history."

Enforcement has tailed off since 2016, however, beginning at the end of the Obama administration and continuing under President Trump.

  • NHTSA launched 13 investigations in 2017, down from a record 204 in 1989, according to Consumer Reports.
  • The agency told the publication the decline in investigations is due to a new era of improved communications with carmakers in the wake of several high profile safety scandals.

What they're saying: Friedman argues that private arm-twisting by government regulators is less effective because "you don't have much of a hammer."

  • "Transparency, sunlight, the bully pulpit — that's what gets people to act," he says, citing recalled infant sleepersas an example.
  • Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, says he sees no sign that NHTSA is stepping up enforcement, adding that he feels regulators are too cozy with the industry.

Go deeper: Tesla safety probes bring scrutiny for regulators too