Design limitations of the Tesla Model S’s Autopilot played a major role in the first known fatal crash of a highway vehicle operating under automated control systems, the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said on Tuesday.
The board said the direct cause of the crash was an inattentive Tesla driver’s overreliance on technology and a truck driver who made a left-hand turn in front of the car.
However, the board also recommended that automakers incorporate safeguards that keep drivers’ attention engaged and that limit the use of automated systems to the conditions for which they were designed.
Joshua Brown, 40, of Canton, Ohio, was traveling on a divided highway near Gainesville, Florida, using the Tesla’s automated driving systems when he was killed.
Tesla had told Model S owners the automated systems should only be used on limited-access highways, which are primarily interstates.
However, the company did not incorporate protections against their use on other types of roads, the board found.
Despite upgrades since the crash in May last year, Tesla has still not incorporated such protections, NTSB chairman Robert Sumwalt said.
“In this crash, Tesla’s system worked as designed, but it was designed to perform limited tasks in a limited range of environments,” he said. “Tesla allowed the driver to use the system outside of the environment for which it was designed.”
The result, Sumwalt said, was a collision “that should never have happened.”
In a statement, Tesla said “we appreciate the NTSB’s analysis of last year’s tragic accident and we will evaluate their recommendations as we continue to evolve our technology,” adding that overall its automated driving systems, called Autopilot, improve safety.
NTSB directed its recommendations to automakers generally, rather than just Tesla, saying the oversight is an industrywide problem.
Manufacturers should be able to use GPS mapping systems to create such safeguards, Sumwalt said.
Manufacturers should also develop systems to ensure that operators remain attentive to the vehicle’s performance when using semi-autonomous driving systems other than detecting the pressure of hands on the steering wheel, the NTSB said.
Brown had his hands on the sedan’s steering wheel for only 25 seconds out of the 37.5 minutes the vehicle’s cruise control and lane-keeping systems were in use prior to the crash, investigators found.
As a consequence, Brown’s attention wandered and he did not detect the semitrailer in his path, they said.
The Model S is a level 2 on a self-driving scale of 0 to 5. Level 5 vehicles can operate autonomously in nearly all circumstances. Level 2 automation systems are generally limited to use on interstate highways, which do not have intersections. Drivers are supposed to continuously monitor vehicle performance and be ready to take control if necessary.
Investigators found that the sedan’s cameras and radar were not capable of detecting a vehicle turning into its path. Rather, the systems are designed to detect vehicles they are following to prevent rear-end collisions.
The board reissued previous recommendations that the government require all new cars and trucks to be equipped with technology that wirelessly transmits the vehicles’ location, speed, heading and other information to other vehicles to prevent collisions.
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