NTSB faults Tesla, U.S. regulators in deadly 2018 Autopilot crash

Driver had game active on his iPhone

WASHINGTON — The chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board on Tuesday criticized Tesla's lack of system safeguards in a fatal Autopilot crash in California in 2018 and U.S. regulators' "scant oversight."

NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said Tesla — unlike five other auto manufacturers — has ignored safety recommendations issued in 2017.

"Sadly, one manufacturer has ignored us. And that manufacturer is Tesla. It's been 881 days since these recommendations were sent to Tesla. We're still waiting," Sumwalt said at a hearing to determine the crash's probable cause.

Tesla's driver assistance system Autopilot is tied to at least three deadly crashes since 2016.

Police in California are investigating a crash in December in which two people were killed in a 2006 Honda Civic after being struck by a Tesla that may have been in Autopilot mode.

There are mounting safety concerns about systems that can perform driving tasks for extended stretches with little or no human intervention, but cannot completely replace human drivers.

Tesla drivers say they are able to avoid holding the steering wheel for extended periods while using the driver assistance system Autopilot, but the company advises drivers to keep their hands on the wheel and pay attention.

"You cannot buy a self-driving car today; we’re not there yet," Sumwalt said, emphasizing the fact that current semi-automation is, at best, up to level 2 standards.

"Industry keeps implementing technology in such a way that people can get injured to killed, including this board's recommendations intended to help them prevent such tragedies."

Walter Huang, a 38-year-old Apple software engineer, was driving his Tesla Model X in 2018 in Mountain View, California, in Autopilot mode at about 70 miles per hour (113 kph) when it crashed into a safety barrier known as a "crash attenuator."

Sumwalt didn't let Huang (or other drivers) off the hook, pointing out behavior that had been uncovered by various investigations of crashes involving semi-autonomous systems.

"[Y]ou can’t sleep. You can’t read a book. You can’t watch a movie or TV show. You can’t text. And you can’t play video games. Yet that’s precisely what we found that this driver was doing," Sumwalt summarized. 

The NTSB said Huang had been using an iPhone and logs recovered show a word-building game was active during Huang's fatal trip. He was not suspected of being fatigued, impaired, or otherwise under the influence, investigators found. 

Sumwalt also noted that Apple does not have a distracted driving policy and he said the board "will discuss ways to spur employers" to address the safety issues raised by portable electronic devices. The board will vote on whether to recommend that Apple adopt a policy barring employees from using phones behind the wheel unless it is an emergency. Apple said it expects its employees to follow the law.

The board expressed growing frustration with the failure of U.S. regulators to take a more aggressive approach to overseeing driver assistance systems, suggesting greater oversight of self-driving car systems going forward.

The California crash points out that “semiautonomous vehicles can lead drivers to be complacent, highly complacent, about their systems, and it also points out that smartphones manipulating them, can be so addictive, that people aren’t going to put them down,” NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said.

The NTSB previously urged the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to verify automakers using systems like Autopilot incorporate safeguards to limit their use "to those conditions for which they were designed." NHTSA has not acted on that recommendation.

NHTSA said in a statement it is aware of NTSB’s report and will carefully review it. The agency added that all commercial motor vehicles “require the human driver to be in control at all times, and all states hold the human driver responsible for vehicle operations.”

Tesla did not respond to requests for comment.

NTSB can only make recommendations, while NHTSA regulates the safety of U.S. vehicles. NHTSA has sent special crash investigation teams to review 14 Tesla crashes in which Autopilot is suspected of being in use.

The NTSB's final report will be available for public review in approximately three weeks. 

Reporting by David Shepardson; Additional reporting by Autoblog's Byron Hurd.

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