Following the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's decision to open a preliminary evaluation into electric-car maker Tesla Motors' (NASDAQ:TSLA) Autopilot's performance in a recent Model S accident that resulted in a fatality, NHTSA said on Wednesday it is probing a July 1 Model X rollover "to determine whether automated functions were in use at the time of the accident," according to Reuters. "NHTSA is looking to learn whether Tesla's Autopilot function, a semi-autonomous technology that helps drivers steer and stay in lanes, was at play."
Unlike the recent fatal Model S accident, which Tesla said occurred while Autopilot was activated, the electric-car maker does not yet know whether Autopilot was engaged in the Model X accident.
Tesla provided this statement about the accident to The Motley Fool:
Tesla received a message from the car on July 1st indicating a crash event, but logs were never transmitted. We have no data at this point to indicate that Autopilot was engaged or not engaged. This is consistent with the nature of the damage reported in the press, which can cause the antenna to fail.
In addition, Tesla told The Motley Fool it "immediately reached out to the customer to confirm they were OK and offer support, but were unable to reach him."
Police say the "Model X struck a turnpike guard rail, then veered across several traffic lanes and into the median, where it landed on its roof in the middle of the roadway," Reuters reports. "The driver and a passenger were injured, according to the police report."
Until Tesla has access to the vehicle's onboard logs, Tesla will not be able to determine whether or not Autopilot was engaged.
Even if Autopilot was engaged, it's worth noting that Tesla explicitly advises drivers to remain alert and to keep their hands on the wheel. Further, the company still markets the technology as a "beta" version, requiring owners to agree that it's a new technology and to understand that drivers should be ready to take over the wheel at any time.
Tesla remains confident in its Autopilot technology.
"[W]hen used in conjunction with driver oversight, the data is unequivocal that Autopilot reduces driver workload and results in a statistically significant improvement in safety when compared to purely manual driving," Tesla said in a blog post last week explaining the fatal accident.
These two accidents in a row highlight how issues with Tesla's vehicles attract an abnormal level of attention compared with other automakers. As both the newest automaker in the U.S. and a pioneer of new auto technologies, the company will probably attract outsize attention from regulators and the media compared with established automakers.
Market noise -- for now
Without any more information about the Model X accident, the news is just market noise. But if Autopilot is determined to be in use during the incident, two high-profile accidents in a row occurring while Autopilot is engaged could increase the risk that the NHTSA could launch a formal investigation into Autopilot's abilities. A formal investigation, as opposed to the preliminary investigation NHTSA launched to gather more data about the Model S accident, would imply the agency may suspect a defect. This would be a cause for more concern.