The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said in a report released Thursday that another Tesla driver activated their car’s Autopilot feature and then took their hands off the steering wheel before fatally colliding with another vehicle.
The incident, which happened on March 1 in Florida, is the fourth involving the automaker’s Autopilot feature that has resulted in a death. Investigators said 50-year-old Jeremy Beren Banner had turned on Autopilot about 10 seconds before his Model 3 collided with a semi truck. His hands weren’t on the wheel and no “evasive maneuvers” were executed before the crash.
“From less than 8 seconds before the crash to the time of impact, the vehicle did not detect the driver’s hands on the steering wheel,” the NTSB said.
As the investigation is still in its early stages, the NTSB didn’t say whether it found the Model 3 driver at fault.
Tesla defends Autopilot
In a statement, Tesla said it is “deeply saddened” by the accident but emphasized that it continues to believe the feature increases driver safety when used correctly.
“Our thoughts are with everyone affected by this tragedy,” a company spokesperson said.
“Tesla drivers have logged more than one billion miles with Autopilot engaged, and our data shows that, when used properly by an attentive driver who is prepared to take control at all times, drivers supported by Autopilot are safer than those operating without assistance,” Tesla said. “For the past three quarters we have released quarterly safety data directly from our vehicles which demonstrates that.”
The latest crash was similar in nature to one that occurred in 2016, when Tesla owner Joshua Brown fatally crashed into a truck in his Model S. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) ultimately decided that a “lack of safeguards” contributed to Brown’s death.
Autopilot has been at the center of at least two other deadly crashes. Last March, Apple engineer Wei “Walter” Huang died in a crash while in his Model X with Autopilot activated. Huang’s hands weren’t detected on the wheel for six seconds prior to the collision. Prior to that, in January 2016, Gao Yaning in Handan, China was killed during a fatal collision involving a Tesla with Autopilot engaged.
Consumer groups have expressed concern over the way Tesla markets Autopilot. Last May, the Center for Auto Safety and Consumer Watchdog called Tesla’s marketing of its semi-autonomous driving software “deceptive and misleading.”
"Tesla is the only automaker to market its Level 2 vehicles as 'self-driving,' and the name of its driver assistance suite of features, Autopilot, connotes full autonomy," the group said in a letter to the FTC.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk has said previously asserted that serious accidents involving Autopilot are “almost always, in fact maybe always” caused by an inexperienced user.
“The issue is more one of complacency,” Musk said in an earnings call last year. “They just get too used to it. That tends to be more of an issue. It’s not a lack of understanding of what Autopilot can do. It’s [drivers] thinking they know more about Autopilot than they do.”