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NHTSA asks Tesla why it didn’t initiate a recall after safety-related software update

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A Tesla operating in the vehicle’s driver-assist system known as Autopilot struck a police car March 17, 2021 in Michigan, officials said in a tweet.

Michigan State Police

A federal vehicle safety authority is asking Tesla to explain why it didn’t initiate a recall when it pushed a safety-related software update to customers in September.

The update enabled Tesla vehicles to better detect emergency vehicle lights in low light conditions, according to a letter from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to Tesla published to the government agency’s website on Wednesday.

Tesla’s “Emergency Light Detection Update” was delivered via an over-the-air software update to customers’ cars a few weeks after NHTSA initiated a probe into possible safety defects with Tesla Autopilot, the company’s standard, driver assistance package.

Tesla also sells a premium version of its driver assistance system under the brand name FSD, or Full Self-Driving, for $10,000 up front or $199 per month. None of Tesla’s systems make their cars safe for use without a human driver behind the wheel at all times. They are “level 2” driver assistance systems, not fully autonomous vehicle technologies.

As CNBC previously reported, NHTSA identified around a dozen collisions that involved Tesla drivers crashing into first responders’ vehicles while they were parked on the side of the road, typically at night or in the pre-dawn hours of morning. In each of the incidents identified by NHTSA, the Tesla drivers had Autopilot or traffic aware cruise control features engaged before the crash. One of the crashes resulted in a fatality.

NHTSA wants to know if Autopilot defects or design issues contributed to or caused those crashes. And now they also want to know if Tesla’s software update effectively served as a stealth recall.

If the agency deems Autopilot defective, it could mandate a recall and impact Tesla’s public image. Such a finding could also inspire greater urgency around rating and regulating driver assistance systems like Tesla’s.

Currently, NHTSA issues an annual New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) rating on the crashworthiness of vehicles sold in the US. NCAP ratings list features that are included in each vehicle, but the agency doesn’t yet rate the safety of, or limit the use of driver assistance systems like Tesla’s.

As part of its Tesla probe, NHTSA is evaluating 12 other car makers’ comparable systems.

NHTSA’s Gregory Magno the agency’s chief of vehicle defects division, told Tesla’s Director of Field Quality Eddie Gates in the new letter that automakers are required to notify NHTSA within five business days when they become aware of (or should have become aware of) safety issues in their vehicles that necessitate a fix.

Over-the-air software updates are covered by current federal recall laws, Magno emphasized.

The agency also asked Tesla for details on its expanding FSD Beta program.

The program gives Tesla owners who are not trained safety drivers a chance to test pre-release software, and new driver assistance features on public roads in the US. The FSD Beta software does not make Tesla vehicles driverless, and has not been de-bugged enough for general use and wide release.

Among other things, NHTSA requested detailed records on how Tesla rates and selects participants in the experimental, early access program.

Recently, Tesla added a “beta button” that allows any customer to request access to an FSD Beta download. It also released an insurance calculator that gives drivers seeking FSD Beta access a “safety score.”

Tesla owners who scored 100 over a week of driving at least 100 miles were given access to FSD Beta this week expanding the program by about 1,000 people, according to CEO Elon Musk who remarked on the number at an annual shareholder meeting last week.

Vehicle safety advocates, including the National Transportation Safety Board, have called on NHTSA to regulate systems like Tesla’s Autopilot, FSD and FSD Beta sooner rather than later.

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J&J Covid vaccine recipients are better off getting Pfizer or Moderna booster, NIH study suggests

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Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccines at a senior living facility in Worcester, Pennsylvania, U.S., on Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021.

Hannah Beier | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine recipients are better off getting a booster shot from Pfizer or Moderna, a highly anticipated U.S. study suggested Wednesday.

The National Institutes of Health study on “mixing and matching” Covid vaccines included more than 450 adults who have received one of the three regimens currently available in the United States: J&J’s, Moderna’s or Pfizer’s. The study hasn’t yet been peer-reviewed.

Volunteers were divided into groups and received an extra shot of their original vaccine or a booster from a different company. Antibody levels were measured two weeks and four weeks after the boosters were given.

All the combinations boosted antibody levels higher, though Pfizer’s and Moderna’s boosters appeared to work best. People who received a booster dose of either the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines had a four-fold increase in their antibody responses more often than those who received an extra dose of J&J, according to the study.

The study showed recipients of Moderna or Pfizer’s original vaccines could easily swap third doses; the results were about the same. Volunteers who originally received the J&J vaccine appear to have gotten a better immune response if they got a booster made by Pfizer or Moderna.

“These data suggest that if a vaccine is approved or authorized as a booster, an immune response will be generated regardless of the primary Covid-19 vaccination regimen,” researchers wrote in the study.

The findings are expected to be presented at a key Food and Drug Administration vaccine advisory committee meeting on Friday.

This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.

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Fed says it could begin ‘gradual tapering process’ by mid-November

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Federal Reserve officials could begin reducing the extraordinary help they’ve been providing to the economy by as soon as mid-November, according to minutes from the central bank’s September meeting released Wednesday.

The meeting summary indicated that members feel the Fed has come close to reaching its economic goals and soon could begin normalizing policy by reducing the pace of its monthly asset purchases.

In a process known as tapering, the Fed would reduce the $120 billion a month in bond buys slowly. The minutes indicated the Fed probably would start by cutting $10 billion a month in Treasurys and $5 billion a month in mortgage-backed securities.

The target date to end the purchases should there be no disruptions would be mid-2022.

The minutes noted that “participants generally assessed that, provided that the economic recovery remained broadly on track, a gradual tapering process that concluded around the middle of next year would likely be appropriate.”

“Participants noted that if a decision to begin tapering purchases occurred at the next meeting, the process of tapering could commence with the monthly purchase calendars beginning in either mid-November or mid-December,” the summary said.

At the policymaking session, the committee voted unanimously to hold the central bank’s benchmark short-term borrowing rate at zero to 0.25%. That went along with the decision to hold the monthly asset purchases at a minimum $120 billion.

The committee also released the summary of its economic expectations, including projections for GDP growth, inflation and unemployment. Members scaled back their GDP projections for this year but upped their outlook for inflation and indicated they expect unemployment to be lower than earlier estimates.

In the “dot plot” of individual members’ expectations for interest rates, the committee indicated it could begin raising interest rates as soon as 2022. Markets currently are pricing in the first rate hike for next September, according to the CME FedWatch tool.

Officials stressed that the tapering decision should not be seen as implying pending interest rate hikes.

However, some members at the meeting showed concern that current inflation pressures might last longer than they had anticipated.

“Most participants saw inflation risks as weighted to the upside because of concerns that supply disruptions and labor shortages might last longer and might have larger or more persistent effects on prices and wages than they currently assumed,” the minutes stated.

The document noted that “a few participants” said there could be some “downside risks” for inflation as long-standing factor that have kept prices in check come back into play. The majority of Fed officials have been holding to theme that the current price increases are transitory and due to supply chain bottlenecks and other factors likely to subside.

Inflation pressures have continued, though, with a reading Wednesday showing that consumer prices are up 5.4% over the past year, the fastest pace in decades.

This is breaking news. Please check back here for updates.

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Coal is ‘king’ as gas prices soar, Total CEO says — and it’s backfiring on cleaner energy goals

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Vapor rises from the cooling towers of the Turow coal powered power plant, operated by PGE SA, in Bogatynia, Poland.

Bloomberg | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Surging natural gas prices have led to a jump in coal use, with plants in Europe and Asia firing back up as temperatures decline and the world grapples with worsening gas shortages.

Total CEO Patrick Pouyanne on Wednesday stressed the need to achieve price stability, contending that lower gas prices will reduce the need to rely on the higher-polluting coal, but that the transition to cleaner energy has also created an imbalance in the market. 

“High pricing is not good news — of course immediately for my company results are better, but for customers” is it not, Pouyanne told CNBC’s Hadley Gamble during a Russia Energy Week panel in Moscow.

Replacing coal with gas “is good for climate change, but to do that, we need to have a lower price,” the CEO said. “Because coal today is a king, because coal is cheaper than all the other sources of energy.”

Coal-produced electricity has shot up in Europe, and European coal futures have more than doubled since the start of the year. And the irony is clear, as this is happening just as Europe is trying to reduce its use of the polluting fuel. Gas prices in Europe, meanwhile, have nearly quadrupled since the start of the year. 

“So for us today prices are too high. We have to find stability, going back to something more normal,” Pouyanne said. 

He added that this is not merely a European gas crisis, but a global one, stemming from both a “huge hike in demand for gas from China and Asia,” as well as “more demand for gas because of energy transition, going from coal to gas, which is good for climate change.”

“So that is I think a lesson,” Pouyanne said. “Another is that the more we put renewables in our electric system, we put in intermittent sources which depend on the weather.”

Pouyanne, like many other oil and gas company executives, has noted the risk of renewables that rely on weather. Brazil, which has increased its reliance on hydropower, saw less rain this year, while other parts of the world that have invested heavily in solar and wind power saw less sun and wind.  

BP CEO Bernard Looney, speaking on the same panel, echoed Pouyanne’s concern.

“I think that this crisis in Europe has reminded us that energy is part of the lifeblood of society and that energy use is only going in one direction — and that is upwards,” Looney said. “We all understand that the sun doesn’t shine at night and the wind doesn’t always blow so we have that question of renewables’ intermittency to deal with.” 

‘A more volatile system’

Talking about governments’ pushes to reduce fossil fuel production and use, Looney said: “At the end of the day, if supply goes away and demand doesn’t change, that only has one consequence, and that is an escalation in price rises. So I’m not suggesting that the onus needs to be put on customers or society, but this is a system, and both the supply and the demand side have to work together.”  

“Just simply correcting a supply-side issue without affecting demand will not result in a more stable system, it’ll result in a more volatile system,” Looney added.

Higher gas use due to colder weather earlier in the year “has lowered all the inventories on gas, and so we see today an exceptional circumstance,” Pouyanne said. “I think that after wintertime we should be able to come back to lower prices which would be good for everybody.”

Gas prices are surging to record highs in Europe. Power shortages are also impacting households and businesses across Asia, and have forced factories to shut down.

This has been brought on by supply shortfalls and the transition to cleaner energy, which has spurred higher demand for gas, considered a cleaner fuel. Demand is also rebounding from its Covid-induced slowdown as economies reopen and travel resumes around the world.

Other energy commodities including oil have also soared in recent weeks, with international benchmark Brent crude trading at $83.37 at 12:00 p.m. ET, its highest level since 2018 and up 64% since the start of this year.

U.S. benchmark West Texas Intermediate hit a seven-year high this week, and was trading at $80.63 at noon ET.

The spike in energy prices comes amid supply chain disruptions and a shortage of shipping containers, both of which have contributed to rapidly rising inflation.

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