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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

Sep 16, 2021 - Economy & Business

New tolling systems are poised to hit highways

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Electric vehicles might be good for the environment, but they're terrible for state budgets, which depend on fuel taxes to pay for road maintenance. So states like Oregon and Utah are experimenting with new road user fees — known as "vehicle mileage taxes" or VMTs — that reflect changing mobility trends.

Why it matters: By charging drivers for the miles they drive — instead of taxing the gas they use — states can ensure that everyone pays their fair share for public roads. But some drivers might wind up paying more than they do now, and the preliminary technology involved is raising privacy concerns.

Stock buybacks boom as corporate cash piles grow

The Delta variant is keeping more companies cautious about how to invest the mountains of cash they have at their disposal. That hesitancy has led, in part, to corporate spending on stock buybacks outpacing capital expenditures this year. 

Why it matters: Companies hoarded cash and raised prices over the past year — leaving them with a lot of money and decisions about what to do with it.

1 hour ago - Health

Health policies at stake in Democrats' infrastructure bet

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Democrats are at a pivotal moment in their quest to expand health care coverage, slash the cost of prescription drugs and create a social structure that prioritizes people's health.

Driving the news: Democrats have a clear list of health care priorities they'll be fighting for this week. Among them is a measure to expand Medicare to cover dental, vision and hearing benefits.