Tesla Autopilot and smartphone distraction caused fatal crash, says NTSB

National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB)

Tesla’s partially automated driving system autopilot steered an electric SUV into a concrete barrier on a Silicon Valley freeway as it was operating under conditions it couldn’t manage and because the driver probably distracted by playing a game on his smartphone, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has found.

The board made the conclusion Tuesday in the fatal crash and provided nine new recommendations to avoid partially automated vehicle accidents in the future. Among the recommendations is for tech companies to create smartphones and other electronic equipment so they don’t operate if they are within a driver’s reach unless it’s an emergency.

Chairman Robert Sumwalt stated the issue of drivers getting distracted by smartphones will continue to spread if nothing is done.

“If we don’t get on top of it, it’s going to be a coronavirus,” he stated in calling for government regulations and company policies banning driver use of smartphones.

Much of the board’s frustration was directed at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and to Tesla, which have not acted on recommendations the NTSB recommended two years ago.

The NTSB investigates accidents but only has the authority to make recommendations. NHTSA can enforce the advice, and producers also can act on it. But Sumwalt stated if they don’t, “then we are wasting our time. Safety will not be improved. We are counting on them to do their job”.

For Tesla, the board repeated earlier recommendations that it set up safeguards to stop its Autopilot driving system from operating in situations it wasn’t designed to navigate. The board also intends Tesla to design a more effective system to ensure the driver is always paying attention.

If the automaker doesn’t add driver monitoring safeguards, mishandling of Autopilot is expected “and the risk for future crashes” will continue, the board wrote in one of its findings.

Tuesday’s hearing focused on the March 2018 accident of a Tesla Model X SUV, in which Autopilot was being used when the vehicle swerved and struck into a concrete barrier dividing freeway and exit lanes in Mountain View, California, killing Apple engineer Walter Huang. NTSB was also checking the battery fire that followed the crash.

NHTSA has informed the NTSB it has investigations open into 14 Tesla collisions and would use its enforcement of safety defects to take action if required.

The agency released a statement saying it will evaluate the NTSB’s report and that all commercially available vehicles need human drivers to stay in control at all times.

“Distraction-affected crashes are a major concern, including those involving advanced driver assistance features,” the statement added.

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