Tesla, Driver, Feds, Safety Barricade All at Fault in Fatal Crash: Feds


Everybody’s getting blamed for the 2018 crash the killed the driver of a Tesla Model X that hit a safety barrier in Mountain View, California. In a report released Tuesday by the Natational Transportation Safety Board, the NTSB criticized Tesla for using the misleading term “Autopilot” for a semi-autonomous vehicle, Tesla’s Autopilot software for not seeing a crash barrier, the Apple-engineer driver who was apparently playing a videogame, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for being too hands-off as a regulator of autonomous driving, as well as the state of California for not repairing the barricade’s crash-attenuation features after a previous accident.

Basically, blame all around. This is one more Tesla accident where – so says the NTSB – Autopilot underperformed what it was supposed to do, and way underperformed what the driver perhaps thought Autopilot should do. Regardless of what Elon Musk says about Autopilot and his grand dreams it will be fully self-driving real soon, Autopilot is today a Level 2 system that a) stays centered in the car’s current driving lane, b) paces the car in front, never getting closer than about two seconds of driving distance, and c) changes lanes autonomously after the driving initiates the lane-change.

The accident happened on US Highway 101 South. The NTSB believes the 38-year-old driver, Wei Huang, was watching or playing a videogame on his phone just before the accident. Data pulled from the car’s black box recorder indicates the Model X had been following (pacing) another car. Then, in the seconds before the accident, the car angled out of its lane, accelerated slightly, and hit a damaged attenuator, or impact absorber, protecting the blunt end of the concrete median barrier.

Southbound view of US-101 depicting Tesla (and Audi, and Mazda vehicles it struck) at final rest. The Tesla initially hit the crash attenuator, which has been damaged earlier by a Prius (Source: NTSB – S. Engleman)

Here’s what the preliminary NTSB report had to say:

On Friday, March 23, 2018, about 9:27 a.m., Pacific daylight time, a 2017 Tesla Model X P100D electric-powered passenger vehicle, occupied by a 38-year-old driver, was traveling south on US Highway 101 (US-101) in Mountain View, Santa Clara County, California. As the vehicle approached the US-101/State Highway (SH-85) interchange, it was traveling in the second lane from the left, which was a high-occupancy-vehicle (HOV) lane for continued travel on US-101.

According to performance data downloaded from the vehicle, the driver was using the advanced driver assistance features traffic-aware cruise control and autosteer lane-keeping assistance, which Tesla refers to as “autopilot.” As the Tesla approached the paved gore area dividing the main travel lanes of US-101 from the SH-85 exit ramp, it moved to the left and entered the gore area [do-not-drive area between main road and a ramp, usually marked by diagonal lines]. The Tesla continued traveling through the gore area and struck a previously damaged crash attenuator at a speed of about 71 mph. The crash attenuator was located at the end of a concrete median barrier. The speed limit on this area of roadway is 65 mph. Preliminary recorded data indicate that the traffic-aware cruise control speed was set to 75 mph at the time of the crash. The impact rotated the Tesla counterclockwise and caused a separation of the front portion of the vehicle. The Tesla was involved in subsequent collisions with two other vehicles, a 2010 Mazda 3 and a 2017 Audi A4.

The NTSB also concluded that in the minute before the crash, the driver’s hands were detected on the wheel three times for a total of 34 seconds, but not in the final six seconds before the crash. Seven seconds before the crash, it began a left steering movement, and in the final seconds, the speed increased from 62 to 70.8 mph “with no precrash braking or evasive steering movement detected.”

Attenuator, or deformable crash barrier, at left and the Tesla-incident barrier at right. (Photo: NTSB)

Even if everything else that could have gone wrong had gone wrong, the driver likely would have survived, the NTSB said, had the SCI smart cushion attenuator been functional. But it had been struck six days before by a Toyota Prius and not repaired by the California Department of Transportation. Often, the damage even from a major accident requires resetting the components, mainly by pulling the barrier back into shape and resetting a steel cable, in a couple of hours. So it’s something CalTrans should have attended to the same day as the Prius crash.

Robert L. Sumwalt, chairman of the NTSB, said:

We urge Tesla to continue to work on improving Autopilot technology and for NHTSA to fulfill its oversight responsibility to ensure that corrective action is taken when necessary. It’s time to stop enabling drivers in any partially automated vehicle to pretend that they have driverless cars.

One spooky sidenote about the Tesla’s battery: It was breached and started a significant fire with plumes of black smoke, but proved hard to put out and keep out.

“The Mountain View Fire Department applied approximately 200 gallons of water and foam during a period of fewer than 10 minutes to extinguish fires involving the vehicle interior and the exposed portion of the high-voltage battery,” the report says:

Technical experts from Tesla responded to the scene to assist in assessing high-voltage hazards and fire safety. After being allowed to cool, the vehicle was transported with a fire engine escort to an impound lot in San Mateo. … Around 4:30 p.m. that afternoon, at the impound lot, the Tesla battery emanated smoke and audible venting. The battery was monitored with a thermal imaging camera, but no active fire operations were conducted. On March 28, 5 days after the crash, the battery reignited. The San Mateo Fire Department responded and extinguished the fire.

The NTSB is also irked that Tesla has not responded to safety recommendations regarding Autopilot that go back to 2017. The NTSB wants makers of autonomous vehicles, especially the ones with today’s partial self-driving, to limit the self-driving to suitable conditions. NTSB also keeps saying it wants phone makers and automakers to limit how phones can be used when the car is moving, but the pushback will be severe if there’s no distinction between passenger and driver phones. And even then, with so many phones used for navigation, entertainment, and receiving calls, there’ll be disputes over what to cut off.

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