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On Monday, the National Transportation Safety Board met to discuss its investigation into the March 2018 crash that killed Tesla owner Walter Huang. The hearing followed a recent release of a trove of documents related to the investigation, which revealed that Huang had in the past that caused his Tesla Model X to veer out of its lane and into a concrete highway gore, as well as the fact that he was playing a game called Three Kingdoms on his iPhone in the minutes leading up to his death.
During the hearing, the NTSB was highly critical of Tesla for what it sees as misleading marketing of its driver assistance system and a lax attitude toward the system‘s operational design domain. But there was plenty of blame to share—the board also excoriated the National Highway Transportation Safety Agency for providing utterly ineffectual oversight when it comes to so-called “level 2” driver assists, as well as California‘s highway agency CalTrans, which failed to replace a damaged crash attenuator in front of the concrete gore, which would in most likelihood have saved Huang‘s life.
“This tragic crash clearly demonstrates the limitations of advanced driver assistance systems available to consumers today. There is not a vehicle currently available to US consumers that is self-driving. Period. Every vehicle sold to US consumers still requires the driver to be actively engaged in the driving task, even when advanced driver assistance systems are activated. If you are selling a car with an advanced driver assistance system, you’re not selling a self-driving car. If you are driving a car with an advanced driver assistance system, you don’t own a self-driving car,” said NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt.
The NHTSA needs to do more
The NTSB—which is empowered to investigate crashes but which has no regulatory oversight— as a result of its investigation. Many of the recommendations are aimed at the NHTSA, which, unlike the NTSB, does have the ability to regulate automakers. It calls for the NHTSA to expand its testing of forward collision avoidance systems to include things like cross-traffic vehicle profiles and highway infrastructure; these vision-based systems are .
Next, the NTSB recommends that NHTSA evaluate Tesla‘s Autopilot suite of driver aids to discover whether the system is too open to misuse and if “the ability to operate the vehicles outside the intended operational domain design pose[s] a risk to safety.” Tesla‘s Autopilot UX and operational design domain was in its investigation of the fatal crash in 2016 that killed Joshua Brown when he was decapitated after his Model S collided with the side of a tractor-trailer in Florida.
The NHTSA has also been asked to work with SAE International “to develop performance standards for driver monitoring systems that minimize driver disengagement and account for foreseeable misuse of automation.” Currently, the NHTSA only provides guidance for automakers wishing to sell products with a higher degree of automation, as opposed to features that are marketed as assists that require the human behind the wheel to remain in charge of situational awareness. At present, no automaker offers an autonomous or semiautonomous assist that would allow the driver to mentally disengage from the act of driving; every commercially available system is a combination of adaptive cruise control and lane keeping, which is classified as level 2.
The NTSB‘s final recommendation to the NHTSA—one it has made before—is that the agency should require any car fitted with a level 2 driver assist to also be fitted with a proper driver monitoring system. An example of this would be a gaze-tracking camera like the one General Motors uses with its ; this ensures that the driver‘s eyes are on the road ahead even if their hands are not on the steering wheel. At present Tesla‘s approach to driver monitoring is merely an occasional interaction with a torque sensor on the steering wheel, which some users have exploited by adding weights to their steering wheel.
But wait, there’s more
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration receives two recommendations from the NTSB. The administration is asked to improve employer policies on cell phone use while driving; the NTSB noted that Huang—an engineer for Apple—was using a work-issued device and that at the time, Apple “did not have a policy aimed at preventing cell phone use while driving or preventing the use of the company-issued cell phone while driving.” It also calls on the OSHA to be more proactive in using its powers against employers that fail to properly address the issue of distracted driving.
The NTSB wants phone manufacturers to implement features that would lock out cellphone or other portable electronic device use when a vehicle is in motion to prevent driver distraction. It also wants Apple specifically to create a policy that bans non-emergency use of cellphones or other handhelds “by all employees and contractors driving company vehicles, operating company issued portable electronic devices, or when using a portable electronic device to engage in work-related communications.” As we‘ve been noting for years, the problem of distracted driving continues to deteriorate, and the NHTSA says that around 3,500 deaths occur on the road as a result of distracted driving.
We shouldn’t have to ask you twice
The NTSB also had to reiterate a number of previous safety recommendations. Once again, it asks the NHTSA to develop testing standards for forward collision systems, including at high speed. Such systems are only fully effective below 30mph (48km/h), although in part this is because of the physics involved in slowing a vehicle sufficiently after a threat has been detected. Additionally, NTSB again asks the NHTSA to come up with a way of verifying that automakers have equipped their cars with safeguards to prevent driver assists like Autopilot from being used outside the conditions for which they were designed.
The NHTSA again asks the Department of Transportation to define the data parameters needed to understand how automated systems behave during a crash, which it says “must reflect the vehicle’s control status and the frequency and duration of control actions to adequately characterize driver and vehicle performance before and during a crash.” The NTSB then wants the NHTSA to use those parameters as a benchmark for event data recorders, which should also have a standardized format for reporting crash data to investigators.
Tesla is once again asked to add safeguards to Autopilot to prevent it from being misused, and the NTSB again asks the automaker to add a more effective method of determining driver engagement during Autopilot operation to prevent more fatal crashes like those that killed Brown and Huang, as well as to the crash that killed Brown three years earlier. Chairman Sumwalt was also highly critical of Tesla‘s failure to respond to the NTSB regarding the investigation into Brown‘s death. It asks for a response within 90 days; Sumwalt pointed out that it has been almost 900 days since that hearing, with no reply from the California automaker.