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Sept. 4, 2019, 8:02 p.m. EDT

NTSB blames Autopilot flaw, driver error for causing 2018 Tesla crash

Brakes did not activate and driver was not paying attention, probe finds

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By Associated Press

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David Friedman, a former acting NHTSA administrator who now is vice president of advocacy at Consumer Reports, said Tesla has known for years that its system allows drivers to not pay attention, yet it hasn’t taken the problem seriously.

Autopilot can steer a car in its lane, change lanes with driver permission, keep a safe distance from vehicles ahead of it and automatically brake to avoid a crash.

Some drivers will always rely too much on driver assist systems, and the system must be programmed to handle that, Friedman said. Autopilot, he said, gives drivers a warning if it doesn’t detect torque on the steering wheel at varying intervals. But unlike a similar system from General Motors, it does not watch the driver’s eyes to make sure he or she is paying attention, Friedman said.

“It’s unrealistic to try to train people for automation,” Friedman said. “You’ve got to train automation for people.”

Tesla’s sensors were unable to see the side of an 18-wheeler in previous crashes, he said. “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 declare Autopilot defective and force Tesla to recall it so it keeps drivers engaged.

The Center for Auto Safety, another advocacy group, also called for a recall.

“Put simply, a vehicle that enables a driver to not pay attention, or fall asleep, while accelerating into a parked fire truck is defective and dangerous,” the group said in a statement. “Any company that encourages such behavior should be held responsible, and any agency that fails to act bears equal responsibility for the next fatal incident.”

NHTSA said it will review the NTSB report “and will not hesitate to act if NHTSA identifies a safety-related defect.”

Tesla said in a statement Wednesday that Autopilot repeatedly reminds drivers to remain attentive and prohibits use of the system when warnings are ignored.

“Since this incident occurred, we have made updates to our system including adjusting the time intervals between hands-on warnings and the conditions under which they’re activated,” the statement said. Tesla said the frequency of the warnings varies based on speed, acceleration, surrounding traffic and other factors.

In the Culver City crash, the larger vehicle ahead of the Tesla changed lanes three to four seconds before the crash, revealing the parked fire truck, the NTSB said.

“The system was unable to immediately detect the hazard and accelerated the Tesla toward the stationary truck,” the report said. The system did spot the firetruck and issued a collision warning to the driver just under a half-second before impact — too late for a driver to act, the agency wrote.

The NTSB found that a stationary vehicle in the Tesla’s field of view is a challenge for the system to assess a threat and brake. It says that detection of stationary objects is challenging for all manufacturers of driver-assist systems.

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