The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHSTA) has ruled in favour of electric carmaker Tesla, in an investigation into a fatal crash last year involving a Model S in semi-autonomous Autopilot mode.
Reports of the incident say the driver had the semi-autonomous Autopilot program engaged at the time of the crash, and it was unclear whether the vehicle’s systems didn’t detect the turning truck ahead or whether the driver had ignored safety warnings to re-take control of the vehicle.
This week, however, the NHTSA ruled that there was no fault with the vehicle and that the driver had to have ignored safety warnings to maintain control of the vehicle – Bloomberg reports.
“The auto industry just let out a giant sigh of relief,” said Dave Sullivan, an analyst at consultancy AutoPacific Inc. “This could have started a snowball effect of letting automakers and suppliers become liable for human error.”
Above: Google’s Lexus RX450h-based self-driving car prototype
The ruling is not only a win for Tesla but a win for numerous other companies that have invested billions of dollars into autonomous driving systems, including Ford, Google, General Motors and the Volkswagen Group.
The rationale behind the push for self-driving vehicles is the belief that eliminating human error will reduce the amount of collisions on the road, thus reducing the number of people killed in traffic accidents every year.
Elon Musk, Tesla’s CEO, said the decision was “very positive”, and made note of the fact the company’s vehicle crash rate had dropped by 38 per cent since introducing its auto-steer system.
However, IHS Markit senior analyst, Stephanie Brinley, told Bloomberg it’s far too early to fully trust autonomous vehicles despite the findings.
“This decision does not in and of itself tell us what will happen down the road,” she said. “It’s really too soon.”
NHTSA spokesperson, Bryan Thomas, added that automatic braking systems and semi-autonomous driving technologies are still not capable of addressing all crash situations.
Above: Tesla Model S
Since the incident, Tesla has updated its Autopilot system, with Version 8.0 employing a ‘three strike’ approach to prompt the driver to put their hands back on the wheel.
The first prompt makes three beeping sounds, and if the driver ignores all three stages of warnings, Autopilot will be disengaged for the remainder of the journey and the vehicle slows down.
NHTSA spokesman Bryan Thomas told Bloomberg this week that car makers must go to lengths to plan for drivers that fail to monitor the system and the environment around them. Manufacturers will be expected in future to provide clearer, overt warnings about the limitations of autonomous driving technology.
“It’s not enough to simply put it in an owner’s manual,” Thomas said.
When the new Autopilot 8.0 software was released, Elon Musk went as far to say Version 8.0 would have saved the life of the man killed in the accident.
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LINK: NHTSA report into Tesla crash (PDF file, opens in new tab/window).
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