NTSB: Tesla Autopilot, Distracted Driver Caused Fatal Crash

Joanna Estrada
February 27, 2020

The NTSB said that although Huang was a distracted driver, Tesla's forward collision warning system did not provide an alert, and its automatic emergency braking system did not activate as his Model X SUV with Autopilot switched on accelerated into a highway barrier. A lot of videos on the internet show that Tesla owners can fall asleep or get lost in their smartphones when they use the autopilot feature. There are only hundreds of them across the country, and we mostly hear about them when they crash or cause a fatality - something that has happened four times in the USA over the past three years.

The NTSB issued recommendations after other Tesla Autopilot crashes and planned to reiterate some of the guidance.

Sumwalt blamed a flawless storm of factors that contributed to this particular crash, including the driver's over-confidence in Tesla's Autopilot mode as well as the fact that he was distracted by playing a game.

The NTSB also wants manufacturers to report incidents, detailing things like the number of miles driven before the prang, whenever vehicles crash in autonomous or semi-autonomous mode. Just as carmakers were pushed into developing more all-electric vehicles by Tesla (and into rolling out huge, distracting touchscreen consoles on dashboards), so too have they been pushed to introduce advanced driver assistance technologies. The driver failed to intervene because he was distracted, likely because he was playing a game on a mobile phone provided by his company, which lacked a policy prohibiting employees from using devices while driving, the NTSB found.

NTSB staff determined that Tesla's system does not adequately make sure drivers are paying attention and recommended that stronger driver monitoring systems be required.

"We urge Tesla to continue to work on improving their Autopilot technology and for NHTSA to fulfill its oversight responsibility to ensure that corrective action is taken when necessary", Sumwalt said.

Tesla didn't immediately respond to a request for comment from ABC News on Tuesday.

Federal investigators called out Tesla for enabling drivers to treat Autopilot mode as if it was fully capable of controlling a vehicle. Crashes related to distraction remain a major concern, it said.

For its part, NHTSA said in a statement that all commercially available motor vehicles require the human driver to be in control at all times, and all states hold the human driver responsible for vehicle operations.

The NTSB said Huang had been using an iPhone and logs recovered show a word-building game was active during Huang's fatal trip.

The system lets the auto operate semi-autonomously, changing lanes and adjusting its speed. According to the NTSB, only Tesla has ignored these recommendations. NHTSA can enforce the advice, and producers also can act on it. The vehicle's electric battery also erupted in flames shortly after; it took 200 gallons of water and foam to put the blaze out.

The safety agency tasked with serious crash investigations thinks its recommendations-to Tesla, regulators, and drivers-are falling on deaf ears.

The NTSB can only make recommendations, while NHTSA regulates US vehicles.

Caltrans spokesman Matt Rocco said on Monday the agency "is implementing several steps to enhance monitoring and tracking of the fix of damage to highway infrastructure".

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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