Tesla crash investigation yields nine NTSB safety recommendations
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recently held a public board meeting during which it determined the probable cause for the fatal March 23, 2018, crash of a Tesla Model X in Mountain View, CA.
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 board also reiterated seven previously issued safety recommendations.
It 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. In addition, the 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 vehicle 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 U.S. consumers that is self-driving. Period. Every vehicle sold to U.S. 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.”
“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,” continued Sumwalt. “The lessons learned from this investigation are as much about people as they are about the limitations of emerging technologies. 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.”
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 SUV 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 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 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 (102 and 106 km/h) following another vehicle at a distance of about 83 ft (25 m). The Tesla’s lane-keeping assist system (“Autosteer”) initiated a left steering input toward the gore area while the SUV was about 5.9 s and about 560 ft (170 m) 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 vehicle’s cruise control no longer detected a lead vehicle ahead when the SUV was about 3.9 s and 375 ft (114 m) from the attenuator, and the SUV began accelerating from 61.9 mph (99 km/h) to the preset cruise speed of 75 mph (120 km/h). The vehicle’s forward collision warning system did not provide an alert and automatic emergency braking did not activate. In addition, the SUV driver did not apply the brakes and did not initiate any steering movement to avoid the crash.
The Tesla 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 non-emergency 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.
An abstract of the final report for the NTSB’s investigation of the crash is available online at https://go.usa.gov/xdyHM and contains the probable cause, findings, and safety recommendations. The full final report is expected to publish online in the next few weeks.