If there was any doubt about questioning the reliability of early generation vehicle autopilot systems, a post-accident report from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) on Wednesday should affirm the naysayers’ doubts.
According to an Associated Press (AP) report, a design flaw in Tesla’s Autopilot semi-autonomous driving system and driver inattention combined to cause a 2014 Tesla Model S electric car to slam into a firetruck parked along a busy southern California freeway in January 2018, according to the NTSB investigation. The agency affirmed that the driver was overly reliant on the autopilot system, which allowed him to disengage from driving.
The Tesla was traveling at 31 mph at the time of impact, which occurred in the high occupancy vehicle lane of Interstate 405 in Culver City near Los Angeles, said the AP report. No one was hurt in the crash, which was triggered by an autopilot system that was engaged but failed to brake. The crash occurred after a larger vehicle, which the driver described as an SUV or pickup truck, abruptly moved out of its lane and the Tesla hit the truck that had been parked with its emergency lights flashing while firefighters nearby handled a different crash.
The AP report quoted the NTSB saying, “The probable cause of the rear-end crash was the driver’s lack of response to the firetruck due to inattention and overeliance on the vehicle’s advanced driver assistance system; the Tesla Autopilot design, which permitted the driver to disengage from the driving task; and the driver’s use of the system in ways inconsistent with guidance and warnings from the manufacturer.”
Tesla has contended that the semi-autonomous system is designed to assist drivers, who must still pay attention and be ready to intervene at all times. Company CEO Elon Musk has reportedly promised a fully autonomous system using the same sensors as current Teslas, but with a more powerful computer and software.
According to the NTSB report, not only did the Tesla’s automatic emergency braking system fail to activate, there was no braking effort from the driver, whose hands were not detected on the steering wheel in the moments leading to the crash.
While the Culver City crash had no fatalities, the Tesla Autopilot system was at fault in three other crashes that resulted in fatalities, including two in Florida and one in Silicon Valley, according to AP.
The NTSB investigates highway crashes and often makes safety recommendations to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which can seek recalls and make regulations.
David Friedman, a former acting NHTSA administrator who now is vice president of advocacy at Consumer Reports, was quoted as saying Tesla has known about the flaws in its Autopilot system, but hasn’t taken the problem seriously. He contends that autopilot systems must be programmed to account for the fact that some drivers will always rely too much on driver assist systems. “It’s unrealistic to try to train people for automation,” he said. “You’ve got to train automation for people.”
Friedman noted that Tesla’s sensors were unable to see the side of an 18-wheeler in previous crashes. “Is it that shocking that it can’t see a firetruck? We’ve known about this for at least three years,” said Friedman, who is calling on NHTSA to pressure Tesla to change the Autopilot system to force driver engagement.
A message was left Wednesday afternoon seeking comment from NHTSA, according to the AP report.