US safety investigators say Tesla’s Autopilot system wasn’t to blame for last year’s fatal crash

Machines are still safer than a human, maybe.
Machines are still safer than a human, maybe.
Image: NTSB via Florida Highway Patrol via AP
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US safety investigators have determined Tesla is not at fault in a fatal May 2016 incident that killed the driver of a Model S using the company’s Autopilot system.

A US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) report released Jan. 19 says that while Tesla’s guidance for Autopilot—which assists in steering, braking, and collision avoidance—was ”not as specific as they could be,” no failure of hardware or software was detected during the six-month investigation.

“A safety-related defect trend has not been identified at this time and further examination of this issue does not appear to be warranted,” the reported states. “Accordingly, this investigation is closed.” The NHSTA added that the agency would continue to monitor for any safety-related defects and take action as needed.

The incident in question occurred in Florida; the Model S slammed into a tractor trailer, killing the car’s driver. At the time, Tesla CEO Elon Musk said the car’s radar, while in Autopilot mode, appeared to have failed to distinguish a white, 18-wheel truck and trailer crossing the highway again a bright sky while. Musk had previously warned that drivers still need to pay attention while their Tesla is in Autopilot. “We explicitly describe [this software update] as a beta,” he said at the product launch. “It’s just important to exercise great caution at this early stage. In the long term, people will not need hands on the wheel—and eventually there won’t be wheels and pedals.”

The NHSTA’s findings were generally favorable to Tesla’s testing procedures, attention to safety measures, and success reducing the number of traffic incidents involving Tesla vehicles. Investigators analyzing Tesla’s mileage and airbag deployment data from 2014 to 2016 for vehicles outfitted with Autopilot software found crash rates dropped by about 40% in that time frame. After the installation of autosteer technology in the Autopilot package, crash rates dropped from 1.3 per million miles in 2014 to 0.8 in 2016—significantly lower than the US average of 1.85 crashes per million miles.