Published: Wed, September 13, 2017
Science | By Cecil Little

Lack of 'safeguards' in Tesla's Autopilot contributed to fatal crash

Lack of 'safeguards' in Tesla's Autopilot contributed to fatal crash

Investigators are meeting to determine the likely cause of a crash a year ago that killed a man using the semiautonomous driving systems of his Tesla Model S sedan. The committee determined that the Tesla Autopilot system "functioned as designed, but was not meant to be used on the road type the crash occurred on". The system is expected be labeled a contributing factor in the crash because it allowed drivers to avoid steering or watching the road for lengthy periods.

NTSB directed its recommendations to automakers generally, rather than just Tesla, saying the oversight is an industrywide problem.

The board's final report declares the primary probable cause of the accident as the truck driver's failure to yield, as well as the Tesla driver's overreliance on his car's automation - or "Autopilot", as Tesla calls the system. Brown relied too much on automation, and demonstrated a "lack of understanding of system limitations", the agency said.

Brown, a 40-year-old OH man, was killed near Williston, Florida, when his Model S collided with a truck while it was engaged in the "Autopilot" mode.

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Tesla has altered the way its system operates since the accident, adding a feature that disengages the Autopilot system entirely if a driver is continually inattentive, and slowing the vehicle to a stop if warnings are repeatedly ignored.

However, NTSB staff pointed to other defects in Autopilot that have not been addressed, such as the fact that Brown was driving on a road that was not meant to ride on Autopilot.

Manufacturers should also develop systems for ensuring operators remain attentive to the vehicle's performance when using semi-autonomous driving systems other than detecting the pressure of hands on the steering wheeling, the NTSB recommended.

Autopilot had been engaged for 37 of the 41 total minutes of the trip-before the system and Brown failed to detect a semi truck crossing in front of the vehicle and collided with the truck's trailer.

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Monitoring driver attention by measuring the driver's touching of the steering wheel "was a poor surrogate for monitored driving engagement", said the board. On Monday, Brown's family said the auto was not to blame for the crash. "We heard numerous times that the vehicle killed our son", said the statement issued by the law firm Landskroner Grieco Merriman. "There was a small window of time when neither Joshua nor the Tesla features noticed the truck making the left-hand turn in front of the auto". "Nobody wants tragedy to touch their family, but expecting to identify all limitations of an emerging technology and expecting perfection is not feasible either", the statement said.

Tesla's Autopilot, introduced in October 2015, was the focus of intense scrutiny when it was disclosed in July 2016 that Brown was using the technology when he crashed into a semitruck and died. "Change always comes with risks, and zero tolerance for deaths would totally stop innovation and improvements".

NTSB recommended that NHTSA require automakers to have safeguards to prevent the misuse of semi-autonomous vehicle features. In January, NHTSA said it found no evidence of defects in the crash.

While the board faulted Brown for not paying attention in the seconds before the crash, they noted Autopilot did not do an adequate job of detecting other traffic and did not inform the driver early enough to allow for sufficient reaction time.

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