Federal panel places some blame on Tesla over fatal Autopilot accident

Officials say the system gave too much leeway for the driver to divert his attention

Back in the 2016, Tesla came under fire from regulators and safety advocates after a Florida driver was killed while testing the carmaker’s Autopilot feature. Initial reports suggested that the fatal accident had occurred because neither the autopilot system or the driver had detected a tractor trailer that had entered an intersection.

In January, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found that the driver was at fault because he had ignored Tesla’s warnings about staying alert while Autopilot mode was active. However, findings released Tuesday by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) lays some blame on the automaker.

The Los Angeles Times reports that the board still puts some blame on the driver for ignoring warnings, but that the design of the Autopilot feature allowed him to become disengaged from the task of driving in the first place. A review showed that the last interaction he had with the vehicle had been nearly two minutes before the accident when he set the cruise control to 74 mph.

“In this crash, Tesla’s system worked as designed, but it was designed to perform limited tasks in a limited range of environments,” said Robert L. Sumwalt, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.

“Tesla allowed the driver to use the system outside of the environment for which it was designed…and the system gave far more leeway to the driver to divert his attention to something other than driving. The result is a collision that, frankly, should have never happened,” he concluded.

Driver safety comes first

Despite negative sentiment resulting from the accident, Tesla continues to push forward with its Autopilot technology. CEO Elon Musk has stated that the safety of drivers is of primary importance, and that the technology has huge potential to significantly increase safety. In January, NHTSA reported that the implementation of Tesla’s automatic steering feature had led to a 40% reduction in crashes.

In response to the board’s findings, Tesla said that it would continue to take steps to improve their driving systems, technology, and safety warnings to better serve consumers.

“We appreciate the NTSB’s analysis of last year’s tragic accident and we will evaluate their recommendations as we continue to evolve our technology,” the company said in a statement. “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.”

Sumalt expressed hope over the thought of a world of self-driving cars and the injuries and deaths they could prevent, but added that automakers are far from achieving that goal.

“It is a long route from being partially automated vehicles to self-driving cars. Until we get there, somebody still has to drive,” he said. 

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