Tesla Au­topi­lot gave driver in fa­tal crash ‘far too much lee­way’

The Mercury News - - Business + Technology - By Louis Hansen lhansen@ba­yare­anews­group.com

Fed­eral reg­u­la­tors on Tues­day con­cluded Tesla’s driver-as­sist sys­tem failed to safe­guard against ex­tended hands-free driv­ing dur­ing a deadly crash, and rec­om­mended more strict con­trols on fu­ture self-driv­ing pack­ages.

The Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board of­fered sev­eral rec­om­men­da­tions to au­tomak­ers and reg­u­la­tors to tighten up con­trols on semi-au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles as it fi­nal­ized its in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the first, fa­tal ac­ci­dent in­volv­ing a self-driv­ing car.

“Tesla al­lowed the driver to use the sys­tem out­side of the en­vi­ron­ment for which it was de­signed, and the sys­tem gave far too much lee­way to the driver to di­vert his at­ten­tion to some­thing other than driv­ing,” said Robert Sumwalt, chair­man of the NTSB. “The re­sult was a col­li­sion that should not have hap­pened. Sys­tem safe­guards were lack­ing.”

A Tesla spokesman said the com­pany will eval­u­ate the board’s rec­om­men­da­tions as it up­grades its sys­tem. Tesla an­nounced it was re-de­sign­ing Au­topi­lot last year, and has been send­ing soft­ware sys­tem up­dates to driv­ers for sev­eral


“Au­topi­lot sig­nif­i­cantly in­creases safety, as NTSB has found that it re­duces ac­ci­dent rates by 40 per­cent,” the com­pany spokesman said. “We will also con­tinue to be ex­tremely clear with cur­rent and po­ten­tial cus­tomers that Au­topi­lot is not a fully self­driv­ing tech­nol­ogy and driv­ers need to re­main at­ten­tive at all times.”

As the NTSB called for greater con­trols on semi­au­tonomous sys­tems, the De­part­ment of Trans­porta­tion on Tues­day re­leased new vol­un­tary guid­ance for the tech­nol­ogy. The agency said it would work with the in­dus­try to re­move bar­ri­ers to in­no­va­tion, and urged states to fol­low.

“The safe de­ploy­ment of au­to­mated ve­hi­cle tech­nolo­gies means we can look for­ward to a fu­ture with fewer traf­fic fa­tal­i­ties and in­creased mo­bil­ity for all Amer­i­cans,” said U.S. Trans­porta­tion Sec­re­tary Elaine Chao.

The May 2016 crash on a Florida high­way took the life of Navy vet­eran Josh Brown, who was driv­ing his Tesla Model S on Au­topi­lot on a di­vided road when a trac­tor-trailer made a left turn in front of his car. Nei­ther Brown nor Tesla’s driver-as­sist sys­tem rec­og­nized or stopped for the turn­ing truck.

The board on Tues­day con­cluded the crash was due to the truck driver’s fail­ure to yield and Brown’s inat­ten­tion and over-re­liance on Au­topi­lot. In­ves­ti­ga­tors found that Brown ig­nored re­peated warn­ings from his car to put his hands back on the steer­ing wheel.

“The way that the Tesla Au­topi­lot sys­tem mon­i­tored and re­sponded to the driver’s in­ter­ac­tion with the steer­ing wheel was not an ef­fec­tive method of en­sur­ing driver en­gage­ment,” NTSB in­ves­ti­ga­tors con­cluded.

The board rec­om­mended that au­tomak­ers with sim­i­lar driver-as­sist sys­tems, in­clud­ing Tesla, Audi, BMW, Mercedes, In­finiti and Volvo, build in more safe­guards to pre­vent driv­ers from mis­us­ing the tech­nol­ogy. It also wants man­u­fac­tur­ers to de­velop sys­tems that bet­ter gauge a driver’s en­gage­ment and alert­ness, and stan­dard­ize ve­hi­cle data so in­ves­ti­ga­tors can in­de­pen­dently an­a­lyze sys­tem per­for­mance.

An ear­lier re­port by the Na­tional High­way Traf­fic Safety Ad­min­is­tra­tion found Tesla’s Au­topi­lot op­er­ated as ad­ver­tised. The sys­tem of cam­eras, radar and ma­chine learn­ing tech­nol­ogy is not fully-au­ton­o­mous.

Con­sumer groups and watch­dogs crit­i­cized Tesla for advertising the level 2 au­ton­omy pack­age “Au­topi­lot,” say­ing it mis­led driv­ers into be­liev­ing the sys­tem was fully au­ton­o­mous.

Karl Brauer, pub­lisher for Kel­ley Blue Book’s KBB. com and Au­to­trader, said ac­ci­dents usu­ally have mul­ti­ple, con­tribut­ing fac­tors.

“Ig­nor­ing the sys­tem’s di­rec­tion to keep your hands on the wheel and stay alert in­vites po­ten­tial dam­age and in­jury,” Brauer said. “This will be a risk fac­tor un­til fully au­ton­o­mous cars are de­vel­oped, and that’s still a ways out.”


This Tesla struck the un­der­side of a semi­trailer while it was us­ing the semi­au­tonomous driv­ing sys­tem, killing the driver, Joshua Brown.

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