The chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board slammed Tesla and unnamed “government regulators” for jeopardizing traffic safety by not taking measures to prevent “foreseeable abuse” of Tesla’s Autopilot driver-assist feature.
Robert Sumwalt, chairman of the NTSB, led off a board meeting Tuesday focused on a March 2019 fatal crash of a Tesla Model X that killed the driver, Walter Huang. Huang had Autopilot engaged and crashed into a safety barrier while playing a video game on his Apple smartphone, Sumwalt said.
“Government regulators have provided scant oversight” of Autopilot and self-drive systems from other manufacturers, Sumwalt said. He apparently was referring to the National Highway Safety Administration, or NHTSA, which, unlike the NTSB, has enforcement power and can recall defective cars with defective automotive technology.
In 2017, the NTSB recommended that automakers design driver-assist systems to prevent human driver inattention and misuse. Automakers including Volkswagen, Nissan, and BMW reported on their attempts to meet the recommendations, but Tesla never got back to the NTSB. “Sadly, one manufacturer has ignored us, and that manufacturer is Tesla,” Sumwalt said Tuesday. “We’ve heard nothing, we’re still waiting.”
Tesla couldn’t be reached for comment.
Sumwalt also criticized drivers who use Autopilot as if it were a self-driving system. “You cannot buy a self-driving car today,” he said. “You don’t own a self-driving car so don’t pretent you do.” He warned drivers not to sleep, read, text, eat or otherwise do anything to remove attention from the task of driving while using a driver-assist system.
Families of Huang were in the audience at the Washington, D.C. meeting. Sumwalt addressed them directly: “Our goal is to learn form what happened so others don’t have to go through what you’re going through.”
The safety board picks crashes to investigate “that can advance our knowledge of safety issues.” It’s highly selective. There are millions of highway crashes in the U.S. each year. The board is currently investigating 17 crashes, three involving Tesla’s Autopilot technology.
The NHTSA, an arm of the federal Department of Transportation, is probing at least 13 Autopilot-related crashes.
Autopilot is an automated driver-assist feature sold as part of what Tesla calls a “Full Self Driving Capability” package for $7,000 that can speed up, brake, and change lanes automatically, although the driver is supposed to pay attention.
Other car companies make similar systems, though none are as technologically aggressive as Tesla’s, and none refer to “self driving,” which even at Tesla remains an aspirational term. Cars that can fully drive themselves are not being sold by anyone to individual customers today, and most industry experts say it will be years until that happens. Tesla has said the upfront $7,000 buys current features plus self-drive features to be added over time.
According to NTSB investigators, Huang, a 38-year-old father of two, was driving his 2018 Tesla Model X on Autopilot when it sped up from 62 mph to 71 mph and plowed into a damaged safety barrier at the end of a concrete wall. The wall divides a left-hand exit ramp that veers away from U.S. Highway 101, known locally as the Bayshore Freeway.
Huang, of Foster City, had dropped his youngest child at day care and was taking his regular commuting route to Apple offices in Sunnyvale. The investigation showed Autopilot engaged for nearly 19 minutes before the crash, and that Huang’s hands were off the steering wheel in the last six seconds.
The impact twisted the car counter-clockwise and into a freeway commuter lane to the right of the concrete wall. Two other cars crashed with the Tesla. The front end of the Tesla was sheared off. The car’s battery burst into flame, Huang was pulled out of the Model X by three men and taken to the hospital by ambulance, where he was pronounced dead.
Two major factors contributed to the severity of the Mountain View crash. One, with Autopilot in control, the Model X drove straight down the middle of a “gore lane,” a white striped zone where cars aren’t supposed to go, crashing head on into a flexible steel “smart cushion” that’s intended to soften the impact of a crash.
NTSB graphic shows the damaged safety barrier at upper right.
Two, the cushion already was severely damaged. After a Toyota Prius crashed into it two months earlier, the length of the attenuator was shortened, offering less protection against the three-foot-tall concrete median wall behind it. The safety device had gone unrepaired by the California Department of Transportation, known as CalTrans, until three days after Huang’s death.
The NTSB already has recommended ways CalTrans could fix broken highway safety devices more quickly.
The ramifications of Tuesday’s conclusions following the two-year investigation are yet to be determined. The NTSB is an independent federal agency, not part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, most famous for its probes into airline disasters. It lacks enforcement power but its recommendations are considered thorough and are taken seriously by policy makers.
In a preliminary NTSB report on a January 2018 Autopilot-related crash, where a fire truck was rear-ended by a Tesla Model S on the 405, the board laid blame on the driver’s inattention, misuse of the Autopilot system, over-reliance on Autopilot, and Autopilot itself, which the NTSB said permits driver disengagement from the driving task. No one one injured; the NTSB investigation continues.