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Tesla Autopilot was engaged before 2018 California crash, NTSB finds

Tesla Autopilot was engaged before 2018 California crash, NTSB finds
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A Tesla Model S was in Autopilot mode — the company’s advanced driver assistance system — when it crashed into a fire truck in Southern California last year, according to a preliminary report released Tuesday by the National Transportation Safety Board.

Reuters was the first to report on the contents of the public documents. A final accident brief, including NTSB’s determination of probable cause, is scheduled to be published Wednesday.

The crash, involving a 2014 Tesla Model S, occurred January 22, 2018 in Culver City, Calif. The Tesla had Autopilot engaged for nearly 14 minutes when it struck a fire truck that was parked on Interstate 405. The driver was not injured in the crash and the fire truck was unoccupied.

Tesla has not commented on the report. TechCrunch will update if the company provides a statement.

The report found that the driver’s hands were not on the wheel for the vast majority of that time despite receiving numerous alerts. Autopilot was engaged in the final 13 minutes and 48 seconds of the trip and the system detected driver-applied steering wheel torque for only 51 seconds of that time, the NTSB said. Other findings include:

  • The system presented a visual alert regarding hands-off operation of the Autopilot on four separate occasions.
  • The system presented a first-level auditory warning on one occasion; it occurred following the first visual alert.
  • The longest period during which the system did not detect driver-applied steering wheel torque was 3 minutes and 41 seconds.

In the 2018 crash into a fire truck, the vehicle was operating a “Hardware Version 1” and a firmware version that had been installed via an over-the-air software update on December 28, 2017. The technology provided a number of convenience and safety features, including forward, lane departure and side collision warnings and automatic emergency braking as well as its adaptive cruise control and so-called Autosteer features, which when used together steers and allows the vehicle to follow (the adaptive cruise control feature) on highways.

Public docket opened Tuesday, for investigation of Jan. 22, 2018, Culver City, California, highway crash involving a Tesla & Culver City Fire Dept. fire truck; https://t.co/UbgF0ll9dA. Final accident brief, including probable cause, slated to publish Sept. 4, 2019.

— NTSB_Newsroom (@NTSB_Newsroom) September 3, 2019

While the report didn’t find any evidence that the driver was texting or calling in the moments leading up to the crash, a witness told investigators that he was looking down at what appear to be a smartphone. It’s possible that the driver was holding a coffee or bagel at the time of the crash, the report said.

Autopilot has come under scrutiny by the NTSB, notably a 2016 fatal crash in Florida and a more recent one involving a Walter Huang, who died after his Model X crashed into a highway median in California. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration also opened an inquiry into the 2016 fatal crash and ultimately found no defects in the Autopilot system. NTSB determined the 2016 fatal crash was caused by a combination of factors that included limitations of the system.

The family of Huang filed in May 2019 a lawsuit against Tesla and the State of California Department of Transportation. The wrongful death lawsuit, filed in California Superior Court, County of Santa Clara, alleges that errors by Tesla’s Autopilot driver assistance system caused the crash.

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