Board warns of insufficient federal oversight of partial driving automation systems. Issues nine safety recommendations for regulators, technology companies and auto industry.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) held a public board meeting Tuesday during which it determined the probable cause for the fatal March 23, 2018, crash of a Tesla Model X in Mountain View, Calif.
Based on the findings of its investigation the NTSB issued a total of nine safety recommendations whose recipients include the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, SAE International, Apple Inc., and other manufacturers of portable electronic devices. The NTSB also reiterated seven previously issued safety recommendations.
The NTSB determined the Tesla “Autopilot” system’s limitations, the driver’s overreliance on the “Autopilot” and the driver’s distraction – likely from a cell phone game application – caused the crash. The Tesla vehicle’s ineffective monitoring of driver engagement was determined to have contributed to the crash. Systemic problems with the California Department of Transportation’s repair of traffic safety hardware and the California Highway Patrol’s failure to report damage to a crash attenuator led to the Tesla striking a damaged and nonoperational crash attenuator, which the NTSB said contributed to the severity of the driver’s injuries.
“This tragic crash clearly demonstrates the limitations of advanced driver assistance systems available to consumers today,” said NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt. “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 Sumwalt.
“In this crash we saw an overreliance on technology, we saw distraction, we saw a lack of policy prohibiting cell phone use while driving, and we saw infrastructure failures that, when combined, led to this tragic loss. The lessons learned from this investigation are as much about people as they are about the limitations of emerging technologies,” said Sumwalt. “Crashes like this one, and thousands more that happen every year due to distraction, are why “Eliminate Distractions” remains on the NTSB’s Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements,” he said.
The 38-year-old driver of the 2017 Tesla Model X P100D electric-powered sport utility vehicle died from multiple blunt-force injuries after his SUV entered the gore area of the US-101 and State Route 85 exit ramp and struck a damaged and nonoperational crash attenuator at a speed of 70.8 mph. The Tesla was then struck by two other vehicles, resulting in the injury of one other person. The Tesla’s high-voltage battery was breached in the collision and a post-crash fire ensued. Witnesses removed the Tesla driver from the vehicle before it was engulfed in flames.
The NTSB learned from Tesla’s “Carlog” data (data stored on the non-volatile memory SD card in the media control unit) that during the last 10 seconds prior to impact the Tesla’s “Autopilot” system was activated with the traffic-aware cruise control set at 75 mph. Between 6 and 10 seconds prior to impact, the SUV was traveling between 64 and 66 mph following another vehicle at a distance of about 83 feet. The Tesla’s lane-keeping assist system (“Autosteer”) initiated a left steering input toward the gore area while the SUV was about 5.9 seconds and about 560 feet from the crash attenuator. No driver-applied steering wheel torque was detected by Autosteer at the time of the steering movement and this hands-off steering indication continued up to the point of impact. The Tesla’s cruise control no longer detected a lead vehicle ahead when the SUV was about 3.9 seconds and 375 feet from the attenuator, and the SUV began accelerating from 61.9 mph to the preset cruise speed of 75 mph. The Tesla’s forward collision warning system did not provide an alert and automatic emergency braking did not activate. The SUV driver did not apply the brakes and did not initiate any steering movement to avoid the crash.
The driver was an avid gamer and game developer. A review of cell phone records and data retrieved from his Apple iPhone 8 Plus showed a game application was active and was the frontmost open application on his phone during his trip to work. The driver’s lack of evasive action combined with data indicating his hands were not detected on the steering wheel, is consistent with a person distracted by a portable electronic device.
Seven safety issues were identified in the crash investigation:
- Driver Distraction
- Risk Mitigation Pertaining to Monitoring Driver Engagement
- Risk Assessment Pertaining to Operational Design Domain (the operating conditions under which a driving automation system is designed to function)
- Limitations of Collision Avoidance Systems
- Insufficient Federal Oversight of Partial Driving Automation Systems
- Need for Event Data Recording Requirements for Driving Automation Systems
- Highway Infrastructure Issues
To address these safety issues the NTSB made nine safety recommendations that seek:
- Expansion of NHTSA’s New Car Assessment Program testing of forward collision avoidance system performance.
- Evaluation of Tesla “Autopilot”- equipped vehicles to determine if the system’s operating limitations, foreseeability of misuse, and ability to operate vehicles outside the intended operational design domain pose an unreasonable risk to safety.
- Collaborative development of standards for driver monitoring systems to minimize driver disengagement, prevent automation complacency and account for foreseeable misuse of the automation.
- Review and revision of distracted driving initiatives to increase employers’ awareness of the need for strong cell phone policies prohibiting portable electronic device use while driving.
- Modification of enforcement strategies for employers who fail to address the hazards of distracted driving.
- Development of a distracted driving lock-out mechanism or application for portable electronic devices that will automatically disable any driver-distracting functions when a vehicle is in motion.
- Development of policy that bans nonemergency use of portable electronic devices while driving 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.
The NTSB also reiterated seven previously issued safety recommendations from prior investigations to NHTSA, the U.S. Department of Transport, Tesla and others.
The National Safety Council (NSC) urged stakeholders referenced in the investigation report to implement the NTSB recommendations immediately.
“NSC supports the NTSB recommendation that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration take a more proactive role in studying, collecting data and requiring automated features on vehicles. NSC also supports recommendations for OSHA to urge employers to institute policies banning employees from using cell phones while driving, as driver distraction appears to have been a causal factor in all crashes referenced in the NTSB report. In the absence of federal regulations, employers can set their own policies, and NSC has been encouraging them to do so for years,” said the NSC in a statement. “Lastly, NSC commends the call for cell phone manufacturers to implement ‘Do not disturb’ technology that blocks drivers’ ability to use cell phones while driving, except in emergency situations.”
Consumer Reports (CR) called on NHTSA to implement driver engagement system standards and require them as standard equipment on vehicles equipped with ADAS systems.
“This shouldn’t be considered optional. Manufacturers and NHTSA must make sure that these driver-assist systems come with critical safety features that actually verify drivers are monitoring the road and ready to take action at all times. Otherwise, the safety risks of these systems could end up outweighing their benefits,” said Ethan Douglas, senior policy analyst for cars and product safety at Consumer Reports. “The evidence is clear, and continuing to pile up, that if a car makes it easier for people to take their attention off the road, they’re going to do so—with potentially deadly consequences. So far, federal safety regulators have done little to reduce these risks, and the NTSB makes clear that NHTSA’s hands-off approach is far too weak. It’s time for NHTSA to go beyond mere words and take some real, forceful action to keep people safe.”
CR previously stressed the need for effective systems to verify driver engagement after the NTSB released the results of its investigation into an Uber test vehicle that struck and killed an Arizona woman in 2018.
Alliance for Automotive Innovation President and CEO, John Bozzella said, “While automakers have developed important, life-saving vehicle safety technologies to help address the more than 90 percent of crashes that are caused by human choice or error; and continue to improve safety on America’s roads, there are currently no vehicles available for sale to consumers that are fully automated. No vehicle widely available to the public removes the responsibility of the driver to stay awake, aware and responsible for the vehicle. The most important safety feature in any vehicle today is the driver—they must maintain awareness and control at all times. Advanced technology on the road today can save lives, but drivers must still operate the vehicle in a safe and responsible way.”
Bozzella continued, “There are no other safety or mobility solutions that hold as much promise to provide as many benefits to the traveling public as automated vehicle technologies. Automakers, and our supplier and technology partners continue to work with state and federal regulators to improve safety and expand mobility options for the traveling public.”