Tesla’s Autopilot was not to blame for the fatal car crash involving a Tesla Model S back in May 2016, but “operational limitations” did play a major role in the accident.
Robert Sumalt, the Chairman of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), weighed in on the fatal Tesla Model S car crash that killed a driver who was using the company’s Autopilot system. At a public hearing on Tuesday, September 12, Sumalt indicated that Autopilot still needs improvement.
Tesla’s Autopilot is a semi-autonomous system, which means the driver’s engagement and attention are still required. The system is designed to assist human drivers, not replace them, and Tesla could have done more to enforce this. While Autopilot does require drivers to keep their hands on the steering wheel, it doesn’t take other steps to ensure the driver does not misuse the system or rely too heavily on it.
In the case of the Tesla Model S fatal crash, the driver, Joshua Brown, was using Autopilot with cruise control set at 74 miles per hour, although the speed limit was 65 miles per hour. The trip took 41 minutes, 37 of which were on Autopilot. When a truck crossed an intersection in front of the Tesla Model S, neither the driver nor the system detected it, and the car crashed into the truck’s trailer. The NTSB said that both the Tesla driver and the truck driver had at least 10 seconds to see and react to one another. The accident marked the first known fatal Tesla car crash.
The NTSB says that Tesla’s Autopilot did not malfunction, but it didn’t do enough to avoid such a situation. Although it performed as it was designed to, it could have done more to ensure that drivers paid attention. The NTSB points out that Tesla’s Autopilot could not detect cross traffic in an accurate and reliable manner, yet it still did not limit drivers to using Autopilot only on roads it could master. According to the board, drivers could travel at up to 90 miles per hour using Autopilot on some roads.
The NTSB adds that Tesla’s solution to monitor the driver’s engagement by keeping tabs on when the driver touches the steering wheel was “a poor surrogate for monitored driving engagement.” Drivers need to be alert and ready to take over at all times, not just keep their hands on the steering wheel and rely on Autopilot.
According to NTSB investigators, the 40-year-old Tesla driver’s lack of reaction indicates that he excessively relied on the semi-autonomous driving system. Simply ensuring that the driver’s hands are on the steering wheel cannot guarantee that the driver is actually paying attention to the road, and additional measures should be in place. Consequently, NTSB investigator Ensar Becic recommends other technologies, such as a driver-facing camera to track the driver’s eyes could be a better alternative.
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