A semi-autonomous Tesla Model S that crashed in Florida last year, killing its driver, had “operational limits” that played a major role in the accident, federal investigators said.
The main shortcomings of Tesla’s semi-autonomous technology involved the vehicle’s inability to monitor and ensure driver attention, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) found.
Joshua Brown, 40, of Canton, Ohio, died when his semi-autonomous Tesla car failed to apply its brakes as a tractor-trailer turned left in front of it. The May 7 crash occurred on a divided highway in Williston, Florida. Mr. Brown’s death was the first death to occur in a self-driving vehicle.
The NTSB found that Tesla’s system worked exactly as intended and it did not identify any defects in the design or performance of the vehicle’s autopilot systems. Initially there was speculation that glare from the sun hitting the tractor-trailer blinded the vehicle’s sensors, but the NTSB’s latest report does not confirm that such an error occurred.
Instead, the NTSB found fault in the “operational design” because the vehicle’s semi-autonomous driving technologies rely on driver input in certain situations, yet they cannot prevent drivers from fully relying on the vehicle to self drive in all circumstances.
NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said Tesla did not ensure that the autopilot system could be used only on highways and limited-access roads, as recommended in the owner’s manual, indicating this design opened the door to greater driver error.
The NTSB’s findings, which Tesla said it would review and consider, could weaken the case for semi-autonomous cars while strengthening the case for fully self-driving cars, which would help eliminate driver error.
In any case, both the family of Mr. Brown and Tesla say they are on the same page as far as the need for self-driving technology goes.
According to Reuters, the Brown family said it did not blame Tesla for the fatal crash:
“We heard numerous times that the car killed our son. That is simply not the case,” the family’s statement said. “There was a small window of time when neither Joshua nor the Tesla features noticed the truck making the left-hand turn in front of the car.”
“People die every day in car accidents. Change always comes with risks, and zero tolerance for deaths would totally stop innovation and improvements.”
Tesla founder Elon Musk said it’s critical that safety advocates and the media focus on how much safer self-driving cars are than human-operated vehicles. He called it “disturbing” that the media reports on every self-driving vehicle accident while neglecting to mention the “1.2 million people that die every year in manual crashes.”
He pushed the issue even further by arguing that those who criticize the glitches in self-driving cars without mentioning the vast benefits are themselves dangerous:
“If, in writing some article that’s negative, you effectively dissuade people from using an autonomous vehicle, you’re killing people,” Mr. Musk said.