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U.S. investigators say that Tesla’s autopilot system didn’t fail in a fatal crash

There are still some lingering questions about human distraction while driving in a semi-autonomous car.


The federal investigation of a fatal car accident in May involving a Tesla operating in semi-autonomous mode, called Autopilot, has been closed after a little more than six months.

After examining factors including the design and performance of the company’s automated braking system as well as data from dozens of crashes that involved Autopilot, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has found that there are no defects in the Tesla system that would warrant product or vehicle recalls.

While the investigation that NHTSA conducted — which serves to determine whether the government should issue a recall — is closed, the investigation of the National Transportation Safety Board, which ultimately determines things like the probable cause of the crash, is ongoing.

A key emphasis in the NHTSA report published on Thursday is that automated driver assistance systems like Autopilot still require the driver to pay full attention. During the May 7 crash in Florida, which involved a Tesla colliding with a truck, NHTSA found that there were at least seven seconds where the driver was distracted and could have taken back control of the system.

“An attentive driver has superior situational awareness in most of these types of events, particularly when coupled with the ability of an experienced driver to anticipate the actions of other drivers,” the report reads. “Tesla has changed its driver monitoring strategy to promote driver attention to the driving environment.”

As such, in September 2016, Tesla rolled out an update that would ban a driver from engaging Autopilot during that particular ride if the driver did not respond to visual cues in time.

Still, NHTSA spokesperson Bryan Thomas said that owners of vehicles with ADAS should be trained how to use the semi-autonomous system upon purchase. The agency found that — though it was “not as specific as it could be” — Tesla provided sufficient information about the limitations of the systems, which include only being able to drive on highways. That said, the system does not prevent driving on local roads.

“Drivers should read all instructions and warnings provided in owner’s manuals for ADAS technologies and be aware of system limitations,” the report reads.

The report also found that there was a 40 percent drop in crash rates after Tesla introduced its auto-steering feature — or its automated lane centering feature.

According to Thomas, Tesla was fully cooperative in the investigation. The agency also requested information from camera supplier Mobileye — which has publicly disputed with Tesla over the limits of the system and has since dissolved its relationship with the electric car maker — and will be publishing that report shortly.

“At Tesla, the safety of our customers comes first, and we appreciate the thoroughness of NHTSA’s report and its conclusion,” a company spokesperson wrote in a statement.

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