A Tesla Model S involved in the fatal crash on May 7, 2016 Photograph: (Reuters)
A man died in a crash last year while using the semi-autonomous driving system on his Tesla Model S sedan. According to a US Government report, he kept his hands off the wheel for extended periods of time despite repeated automated warnings not to do so.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released 500 pages of finding into the May 2016 death of Joshua Brown, a former Navy SEAL, near Williston, Florida. He died after his Model S collided with a truck while it was engaged in the "Autopilot" mode. The report mentioned that in his 37 minute period of the trip, Brown kept his hands on the wheel for just 25 seconds. The Autopilot mode was remained on during most of his trip which gave him visual warning seven times saying "Hands Required Not Detected". The system also sounded chime for six times.
The NTSB report disclosed that the Tesla Model S uses a proprietary system to record a vehicle's speed and other data. This is not accessible by the authorities with the commercial tools used to track information in most other cars. The NTSB, therefore, had to rely on Tesla to provide the data in engineering units using proprietary manufacturer software.
A Tesla spokeswoman Keely Sulprizio declined to comment on the NTSB report. Though in 2016 the company said Autopilot "does not allow the driver to abdicate responsibility".
Brown family lawyer Jack Landskroner described the media reports as "unequivocally false" which claimed that Brown was watching a movie at the time of the crash. He said in an email that the NTSB's findings should put to rest these false allegations. He also added that the family has not taken any legal action against Tesla and was still reviewing the NTSB report.
The incident raised questions about the safety of systems that can perform driving tasks for long stretches with little or no human intervention, but which cannot completely replace human drivers.
Tesla in September unveiled improvements in Autopilot. The chief executive officer said that they have added new limits on hands-off driving and other features. The updated system temporarily prevents drivers from using the system if they do not respond to audible warnings to take back control of the car.
The NTSB makes safety recommendations but cannot order recalls.
In January, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said it had found no evidence of defects in the aftermath of Brown's death. NHTSA said that Brown did not apply the brakes and his last action was to set the cruise control at 74 miles (119 km) per hour less than two minutes before the crash-- above the 65 mph speed limit. The report mentioned that Brown did not take any action to avoid the collision.
The agency said that the truck should have been visible to Brown for at least seven seconds before impact.
A Florida Highway Patrol spokesman said the truck driver was charged with a right of way traffic violation. He is due for a court hearing on Wednesday.