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In wake of driverless fatal crash, Feds want to force drivers to watch the road

October 6, 2017
Lawmakers should require car companies to use new technology that effectively forces drivers to pay attention to the road when using partially self-driving vehicles, Federal transportation safety officials recommended in September.
The National Transportation Safety Board’s unanimous recommendation followed its ruling that Silicon Valley automaker Tesla shared the blame for what’s believed to be the first deadly crash involving such a car.
The design of Tesla’s so-called Autopilot technology contributed to a crash that killed an Ohio man in May 2016, the four-person panel said. But the NTSB also ruled that the driver had an "overreliance" on the technology and that there were no technical defects.
Robert Sumwalt, chairman of the NTSB, said Tesla’s "operational limitations played a major role in this collision."
Joshua Brown was killed when his luxury electric car crashed at a high speed into a semi-truck while using Tesla’s self-accelerating, steering and braking.
The NTSB concluded that both drivers had "at least 10 seconds" to spot each other but there was "no evidence of any evasive action" by either. The agency did not interview the truck driver, who refused to cooperate in the investigation.
The board said Tesla Autopilot "functioned as designed" but noted that no vehicles currently on the road are capable of monitoring and responding to cross-traffic like the truck that killed Brown.
The NTSB unanimously recommended that automakers limit the use of partially self-driving technology by ensuring that drivers are engaged at all times. The board concluded that Tesla’s method of making sure the driver’s hands are periodically on the wheel is not enough and instead suggested solutions, such as a camera that tracks eye movement and disengages self-driving systems if the driver is not paying attention.
 
That method is in development at several other automakers, including a new partially self-driving system to be deployed this year by General Motors’ Cadillac brand.
 
A Tesla spokesperson said the company would evaluate the NTSB recommendations "as we continue to evolve our technology. We will also continue to be extremely clear with current and potential customers that Autopilot is not a fully self-driving technology and drivers need to remain attentive at all times." Tesla said.
 
The Silicon Valley automaker has emphasized that drivers are always responsible for keeping their hands at the wheel and monitoring their surroundings. But NTSB officials said Tesla’s method of reminding the driver to grab the wheel "was not an effective method for ensuring driver engagement."
 
Tesla CEO Elon Musk has said that technological advancements implemented several months after the crash probably could have prevented it.
 
The accident is believed to be the first deadly crash in which an American driver was relying on self-driving technology.
 
Joshua Brown didn’t keep his hands on the wheel, despite repeated vehicle warnings, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. 
 
The victim’s family said it did not blame the car for Brown’s death.
 
"That is simply not the case," the family 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."
 
The family praised Tesla for using the situation to improve its technology.
 
"Joshua believed, and our family continues to believe, that the new technology going into cars and the move to autonomous driving has already saved many lives," the family said. "Change always comes with risks, and zero tolerance for deaths would totally stop innovation and improvements."
 
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said separately in January that it had discovered no defects in Tesla’s self-driving system after completing its own investigation into the accident.
 
The NHTSA had said in January that the driver should have seen the truck "at least" seven seconds before the collision, calling it a "period of extended distraction" and that he "took no braking, steering or other actions."
 
The NTSB report appeared to deliver no conflicting information. The agency said the driver was traveling at 74 miles per hour, above the 65 mph limit on the road, when he collided with the truck.
 
The driver used the vehicle’s self-driving system for 37.5 minutes of the 41 minutes of his trip, according to the NTSB. During the time the self-driving system was activated, he had his hands on the wheel for a total of only about half a minute, investigators concluded.
 
According to the NTSB, the driver received seven visual warnings on the instrument panel, which blared "Hold Steering Wheel," followed by six audible warnings.
 
 

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