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By Tim Higgins and Ben Foldy
U.S. safety investigators leveled a blistering rebuke of the federal regulator responsible for overseeing the safety of Tesla Inc.'s advanced driver-assistance system called Autopilot, which they found contributed to another fatal crash.
Tesla's Autopilot played a role in a crash that killed the driver of the auto maker's Model X sport-utility vehicle in March 2018 in Mountain View, Calif., the National Transportation Safety Board said Tuesday.
The agency, better known for its investigations into airplane crashes, has been increasingly scrutinizing the emergence of automated-driving technologies and pushing the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to do more to ensure the safety of advanced driver-assistance systems.
"It's time to stop enabling drivers in any partially automated vehicle to pretend that they have driverless cars because they don't have driverless cars," NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said Tuesday. He urged NHTSA to "fulfill its oversight responsibility to ensure that corrective action is taken when necessary."
The NTSB detailed its findings during a meeting in Washington, setting the stage for increased pressure on NHTSA, which regulates cars and has the power to force Tesla to make changes. Unlike NHTSA, which can require action by car makers, the NTSB only issues recommendations on how to improve safety.
The NTSB faulted the regulator's investigating arm for not thoroughly assessing the effectiveness of Tesla's driver-monitoring system, foreseeable misuse and risks of it being used in ways it wasn't designed to handle. It urged further evaluation of the system.
NHTSA will review the report and considers distracted driving to be a continuing concern, an agency spokesman said in a statement. Tesla didn't respond to a request for comment.
The NTSB also attributed probable cause of the 2018 crash to the driver, Walter Huang, who was likely distracted playing a videogame on his employer-issued cellphone. His SUV veered into a road barrier at 71 miles an hour during his morning commute along Highway 101.
The findings won't result in any penalties or other immediate consequences.
The NTSB and NHTSA have differed on Tesla's Autopilot in the past as the government tries to adjust to the fast-moving world of increased automation in the automobile. Regulators are grappling with how to find the right balance between encouraging potentially lifesaving technology while ensuring the public is safe.
NHTSA has opened 14 investigations into Tesla crashes involving driver-assistance systems as part of a broader review of the technology. Two of those investigations include Tesla vehicles involved in fatal incidents in the past two months.
To help shape future policies, NHTSA has been soliciting feedback on new test procedures for the technologies. Congress has also been considering potential legislation for autonomous vehicles. At a Senate hearing in November, Tesla's Autopilot was singled out for criticism by both Mr. Sumwalt and Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Ed Markey, who repeatedly pressed NHTSA's acting administrator James Owens about drivers using the system unsafely.
In 2017, NHTSA found that Tesla's Autopilot contained no defect during a fatal 2016 crash in Florida involving Joshua Brown. The NTSB later concluded the auto maker contributed to the incident with a technology that allowed the driver to go long periods without his hands on the wheel and ignore the company's in-car warnings.
In that incident, Mr. Brown had Autopilot engaged when his Tesla Model S ran through the underside of a tractor trailer that was crossing the road. Investigators found that Mr. Brown made no attempt to stop and the car's data showed the system didn't detect his hands touching the wheel in the seconds before the impact.
On Tuesday, the NTSB reiterated its findings in Mr. Brown's crash and highlighted other Tesla crashes in addition to the Mountain View incident that shared similarities. The incidents showed prolonged inattentiveness by drivers and suggested that Tesla's monitoring system was a poor measure of engagement.
Autopilot is the marketing name for a system of functions that allow Tesla cars to steer, brake and cruise themselves under certain circumstances. It doesn't amount to self-driving and the company instructs drivers to keep their hands on the wheel and pay attention to the roadway.
Following the 2016 Florida crash, Tesla made adjustments to the system such as reducing the time a driver's hands can be off the wheel before getting a warning and a three-strikes policy that turns the system off if the driver continues to ignore the alerts. Still, Tesla has continued to come under criticism from experts and safety advocates who say drivers are improperly using Autopilot.
Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk has acknowledged that some drivers are overly confident with Autopilot, but he has vigorously defended the system, saying his company's data shows its vehicles are safer than others.
General Motors Co. has deployed similar technology. But its system includes a camera that monitors a driver's eye movement to ensure that the driver is paying attention. Tesla has rejected that kind of technology, saying it is ineffective.
The Mountain View crash heightened concern about automation, in part because it came soon after a fatal crash in Tempe, Ariz., involving a test vehicle used by Uber Technologies Inc. to develop autonomous vehicles. In the Uber crash, a safety operator sat at the steering wheel with the job of taking control of the vehicle in case of emergency. That didn't happen and the Uber vehicle struck and killed a pedestrian.
The NTSB, in November, found that the immediate cause of the Uber collision was the failure of the safety operator to closely monitor the car's driving system and the roadway. The driver instead was looking at a personal cellphone. The board also faulted Uber for a lack of a system to address safety operators' "automation complacency."
Moments after the NTSB concluded its meeting Tuesday, NHTSA said it took action to suspend passenger operation of 16 autonomous shuttles operated by EasyMile after one of its passengers was injured in an unexplained braking incident. The low-speed shuttles operate in 10 states with safety operators onboard.
The incident occurred in Columbus, Ohio, when a company shuttle traveling about 7 miles per hour made an emergency stop and a passenger fell from a seat, an EasyMile spokeswoman said. "We are running test loops on the ground for further analysis."
Following the Mountain View crash, Tesla attempted to lay the blame for the crash on the driver of the Model X, saying the vehicle's data didn't detect Mr. Huang's hands on the wheel in the moments before the crash. Others have noted that the finicky system may not have detected his hands.
"The crash happened on a clear day with several hundred feet of visibility ahead, which means that the only way for this accident to have occurred is if Mr. Huang wasn't paying attention to the road, despite the car providing multiple warnings to do so," a Tesla spokesman said at the time in a statement.
Mr. Huang's family is suing Tesla over the crash. Their lawyer told the NTSB that Mr. Huang had complained to his family that Autopilot was acting up in the section of highway where his car veered into a center divider.
Autopilot's limitations steered the vehicle into the divider and Tesla's "ineffective" monitoring of Mr. Huang's use of Autopilot contributed to the crash, the NTSB found.
Also on Tuesday, the NTSB said California's lack of maintenance of the median contributed to the severity of the crash, saying Mr. Huang would likely have survived otherwise. A different crash in the same spot earlier in the month had previously damaged the barrier.
Write to Tim Higgins at Tim.Higgins@WSJ.com and Ben Foldy at Ben.Foldy@wsj.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
February 25, 2020 18:35 ET (23:35 GMT)
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