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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

If you haven't bought a new car in a few years, you might be surprised at how many driving tasks are now automated — speed control, braking, lane-keeping and even changing lanes.

Why it matters: Carmakers keep adding more automated features in the name of safety. But now authorities want to find out if assisted-driving technology itself is dangerous by making it too easy for people to misuse.

  • The more sophisticated the assisted-driving system, the more complacent drivers can become, abdicating their own responsibility for operating the car.
  • This can lead to avoidable crashes and dangerous incidents that undermine public confidence in automated driving.
  • Even with the latest technology, drivers still need to watch where they're going and be prepared to take the wheel; fully autonomous vehicles are years from widespread deployment.

Context: Federal regulators have taken a mostly hands-off approach to automated vehicle technologies, offering only guidelines for fully driverless cars like robotaxis, which are under development and evolving.

  • Now the Biden administration is stepping up its scrutiny of assisted-driving systems available today, like Tesla's Autopilot.

What's happening: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said recently that companies must report serious crashes involving driver-assistance and automated-driving systems to authorities within a day of learning about them.

  • This week NHTSA opened a formal investigation into Tesla Autopilot after a series of crashes involving emergency vehicles.
  • The agency said it had identified 11 crashes since 2018 in which Tesla vehicles operating on Autopilot struck emergency vehicles, despite the presence of flashing lights, flares or road cones.
  • At least 17 people were injured and one person died in the crashes, according to NHTSA.

Between the lines: While the focus on crashes with emergency vehicles is fairly narrow, NHTSA will be looking carefully at where and how Autopilot functions, including how it identifies and reacts to obstacles in the road.

  • Importantly, it will also examine how Autopilot monitors and assists drivers, and how it enforces the driver's engagement while the system is operating.

Be smart: Tesla Autopilot is not an autonomous driving system. It is an advanced driver assistance system (ADAS) that allows the car to maintain its speed and stay in its lane.

  • Tesla is gradually adding more features to a package it calls "full self-driving," but such labels are confusing to consumers because they misrepresent the car's capabilities, safety advocates say.

What to watch: NHTSA will consider whether there is a defect in Tesla's Autopilot system due to a "foreseeable misuse" of the technology and whether all of its 765,000 affected cars should be recalled.

  • "If NHTSA takes this all the way and decides there’s a defect, I think it will up the bar for the industry, and make people more confident in these technologies," David Friedman, vice president of advocacy at Consumer Reports, tells Axios.
  • But that could be a "double-edged sword" if it results in stricter AV regulations that hurt U.S. competitiveness, warns AV expert Grayson Brulte.

The bottom line: Authorities are reviewing not just whether assisted-diving technology works, but also its effects on human behavior.

Go deeper

Vintage cars are chic again

This 1927 Mercedes-Benz Model K was named Best in Show at the 25th annual Greenwich Concours d’Elegance in October. Photo courtesy of Hagerty.

The pandemic has brought a swell of interest in classic, vintage and exotic cars, particularly among people with spare cash and a desire for COVID-safe driving adventures.

Why it matters: While electric vehicles are often viewed as the future, combustion engines will be with us for now — and vintage cars can be a good investment vehicle in an era of low interest rates.

41 mins ago - Health

CDC director says COVID-19 messaging should have been clearer

Rochelle Walensky. Photo: Stefani Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images

Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that the messaging around the COVID-19 pandemic and changing guidance should have been clearer.

State of play: Walensky is being coached by media experts and is planning to have more press briefings by herself in order to ensure that CDC is seen as an independent, scientific entity, rather than as a political one, the Journal reports.

59 mins ago - World

UAE asks U.S. to reinstate Houthi terrorist designation after attack

Secretary of State Tony Blinken (left) listens to United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan during a joint news conference at the State Department iin October. Photo: Andrew Harnik/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Emirati Foreign Minister Abdullah Bin Zayed asked Secretary of State Tony Blinken in a phone call Monday to re-designate the Houthi rebels in Yemen as a terrorist organization, a senior Emirati official told Axios.

Why it matters: Less than a month after he assumed office, President Biden rolled back the Trump administration’s decision to make the designation. He said it hampered humanitarian assistance to the Yemeni people. Since then, the Houthis have escalated their attacks against Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region — including an attack Monday in Abu Dhabi.