Safety Board Hits Tesla Autopilot Design, Regulator’s ‘Misguided’ Approach

By | February 26, 2020

The National Transportation Safety Board on Tuesday sharply criticized Tesla Inc.’s lack of system safeguards in a fatal 2018 Autopilot crash in California and called U.S. regulators’ approach in overseeing the driver assistance systems “misguided.”

NTSB board members questioned Tesla’s design of its semi-automated driving assistance system and condemned the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) for a “hands-off approach” to regulating the increasingly popular systems.

NHTSA has “taken a nonregulatory approach to automated vehicle safety” and should “complete a further evaluation of the Tesla Autopilot system to ensure the deployed technology does not pose an unreasonable safety risk,” NTSB said.

The board faulted Apple Inc. and other smartphone makers for refusing to disable devices when users are driving. It also called on the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration to use its authority to take action “against “employers who fail to address the hazards of distracted driving.”

The board’s criticism posed a direct challenge to the auto industry’s efforts to profit from partially automated vehicles and the smartphone industry’s quest to keep user eyes on their devices.

The NTSB can only make recommendations, while NHTSA regulates U.S. vehicles. NHTSA has sent teams to investigate 14 Tesla crashes in which Autopilot is suspected of being in use, but taken no action against the company.

Concerns have grown about systems that can perform driving tasks for extended stretches with little or no human intervention, but cannot completely replace human drivers.

“It’s time to stop enabling drivers in any partially automated vehicle to pretend that they have driverless cars. Because they don’t have driverless cars,” NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said.

National Transportation Safety Board Report Synopsis

As a result of its investigation, the NTSB made the following nine new safety recommendations:

To the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration:

  1. Expand New Car Assessment Program testing of forward collision avoidance system performance to include common obstacles, such as traffic safety hardware, cross-traffic vehicle profiles, and other applicable vehicle shapes or objects found in the highway operating environment.
  2. Evaluate Tesla Autopilot-equipped vehicles to determine if the system’s operating limitations, foreseeability of driver misuse, and the ability to operate the vehicles outside the intended operational design domain pose an unreasonable risk to safety; if safety defects are identified, use applicable enforcement authority to ensure that Tesla Inc. takes corrective action.
  3. For vehicles equipped with Level 2 automation, work with SAE International to develop performance standards for driver monitoring systems that will minimize driver disengagement, prevent automation complacency, and account for foreseeable misuse of the automation.
  4. After developing the performance standards for driver monitoring systems recommended in Safety Recommendation H-20-X, require that all new passenger vehicles with Level 2 automation be equipped with a driver monitoring system that meets these standards.

To the Occupational Safety and Health Administration:

  1. Review and revise your distracted driving initiatives to increase employers’ awareness of the need to develop strong cell phone policy prohibiting the use of portable electronic devices while driving.
  2. Modify your enforcement strategies to increase the use of the general duty clause cited in 29 United States Code section 654 against those employers who fail to address the hazards of distracted driving.

To SAE International:

  1. For vehicles equipped with Level 2 automation, work with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to develop performance standards for 7 driver monitoring systems that will minimize driver disengagement, prevent automation complacency, and account for foreseeable misuse of the automation. To Manufacturers of Portable Electronic Devices (Apple, Google, HTC, Lenovo, LG, Motorola, Nokia, Samsung, and Sony):
  2. Develop a distracted driving lock-out mechanism or application for portable electronic devices that will automatically disable any driver-distracting functions when a vehicle is in motion, but that allows the device to be used in an emergency; install the mechanism as a default setting on all new devices and apply it to existing commercially available devices during major software updates.

To Apple Inc.:

  1. Develop and implement a company policy that bans the nonemergency use of portable electronic devices while driving by all employees and contractors driving company vehicles, operating company-issued portable electronic devices, or using a portable electronic device to engage in work-related communications.

The Mountain View, California crash – involving a driver who was playing a game on his phone during the fatal trip – illustrates “semi-autonomous vehicles can lead drivers to be complacent… and it also points out that smartphones manipulating them, can be so addictive, that people aren’t going to put them down,” Sumwalt added.

Walter Huang, a 38-year-old Apple software engineer, was driving his Tesla Model X in 2018 in Autopilot mode at about 70 miles per hour (113 kph) when it crashed into a safety barrier. The NTSB said Huang had been using an iPhone and recovered logs showed a word-building game was active.

The probable cause of Huang’s crash was Autopilot steering the vehicle off the highway “due to system limitations, and the driver’s lack of response due to distraction likely from a cell phone game application and overreliance” on Autopilot, the NTSB said. Huang on prior trips had intervened when Autopilot steered the vehicle toward the same “highway gore” area.

NHTSA said it will carefully review the NTSB’s recommendations. The agency added that commercial motor vehicles “require the human driver to be in control at all times.”

Tesla drivers are able to avoid holding the steering wheel for extended periods while using Autopilot, but Tesla advises keeping hands on the wheel and paying attention.

Sumwalt said Tesla allowed drivers to remove their hands from the wheel for up to three minutes under certain conditions when using Autopilot.

The NTSB said Tesla added safeguards to require quicker warnings at higher speeds for drivers without hands on the wheel.

Regulators in Europe place limitations on Autopilot use and Tesla issues alerts there for hands-off driving within 15 seconds, the NTSB said.

Tesla did not respond to requests for comment.

NTSB Vice Chairman Bruce Landsberg called Autopilot “completely inadequate” and noted Tesla vehicles have repeatedly crashed into large obstacles.

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

Tesla’s Autopilot is tied to at least three deadly crashes since 2016 and suspected in others.

The NTSB will release in coming days the probable cause of a third Tesla Autopilot fatal crash in March 2019 in Florida that showed no evidence the driver’s hands were on the steering wheel in the final 8 seconds before striking a semi-trailer truck.

The NTSB also called on cellphone manufacturers to add more safeguards to prevent the misuse of devices by drivers.

Sumwalt noted that Apple does not have a distracted driving policy, but said it should have one. Apple says it expects its employees to follow the law.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Chris Reese, Sandra Maler and Dan Grebler)

Topics Insurtech

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