NTSB: Driver in fatal Tesla crash was playing video game

Keith Laing
The Detroit News
The Apple engineer who died when his Tesla Model X crashed into the concrete barrier complained before his death that the SUV's Autopilot system would malfunction in the area where the crash happened.

Washington — The driver of a Tesla Model X SUV involved in a fatal 2018 crash that occurred while the car was being operated in the automaker's Autopilot mode was playing a video game behind the wheel, the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board Chairman said Tuesday. 

The agency placed blame for the March 2018 crash on the distracted driver, Tesla Inc. and Trump administration officials for not doing enough to prevent crashes involving cars that have semi-autonomous features that drivers easily mistake for being capable of full self-driving. 

"If you own a car with partial automation, you do not own a self-driving car. Don’t pretend that you do," NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said at a hearing in Washington about the Tesla crash.

"This means that when driving in the supposed 'self-driving' mode: you can’t sleep; you can’t read a book; you can’t watch a movie or TV show; you can’t text; and, you can’t play video games," he continued. "And, that is precisely what we found in this crash — the driver was playing a video game on his smartphone when his car veered into the median barrier." 

Sumwalt slammed Tesla and the Trump administration officials for failing to do more to prevent crashes involving circumstances like the Tesla accident, which took place in Mountain View, Calif., in March 2018. 

"It is foreseeable that some drivers will attempt to inappropriately use driving automation systems," Sumwalt said. "To counter this possibility, in 2017 we issued 2 recommendations to 6 automobile manufacturers. Five manufacturers responded favorably that they were working to implement these recommendations.

"Tesla ignored us. We ask recommendation recipients to respond to us within 90 days. It’s been 881 days since these recommendations were sent to Tesla. We’re still waiting." 

Tesla did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

NHTSA defended its handling of semi-autonomous driver assistance systems like Tesla's Autopilot system. In a statement, the agency said it has "for years, recommended that developers of advanced driver assistance systems incorporate appropriate driver-vehicle interaction strategies in deployed technology and has made resources available that assist with that recommendation." 

"All commercially available motor vehicles require the human driver to be in control at all times, and all states hold the human driver responsible for vehicle operations," the agency continued. "Distraction-affected crashes are a major concern, including those involving advanced driver assistance features. NHTSA will continue to work with its state and local partners to combat distracted driving, which claimed at least 3,166 lives in 2017."  

Tesla has come under fire before for marketing cars featuring its "Autopilot" system, which safety advocates say gives car buyers the false impression that they do not have to pay attention to the road when they are behind the wheel of the company's cars. 

"For several years now, the Center for Auto Safety has been calling for federal action to address the obvious risks of using misleading terms like 'AutoPilot' and 'Full Self Driving' for what has now repeatedly been shown to be a lethal a driver assist system — not a replacement for drivers," Jason Levine, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Auto Safety, said in a statement released as the NTSB hearing was taking place. 

Levine placed blame on Trump administration officials at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration who have ignored recommendations from the NTSB and his group to crack down on automakers that test self-driving cars on public roads. 

"Today’s headlines are going to be about Tesla and NTSB," Levine said. "But the real villain in this story is the leadership at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration who, by failing to recall or regulate, are demonstrating either willing ignorance or extraordinary incompetence." 

Sumwalt agreed, saying: "This crash had many facets that we will discuss today. But what struck me most about the circumstances of this crash was the lack of system safeguards to prevent foreseeable misuses of technology.

"Industry keeps implementing technology in such a way that people can get injured or killed, ignoring this board’s recommendations intended to help them prevent such tragedies," he said. "Equally disturbing is that government regulators have provided scant oversight, ignoring this board’s recommendations for system safeguards." 

NTSB Board Member Jennifer Homendy took issue with critics who complain that additional safety requirements will add to the already-skyrocketing costs of new cars. 

"Let me be clear: NHTSA's mission is not to sell cars," she said. "If we want to have a serious discussion about why cars are not affordable in many circumstances, we should start with wages. 1.7 million workers in the United States make the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour or less. What we should not do is lower the bar on safety. That shouldn't even be considered by an agency that has the word safety in their name." 

NTSB Board Member Bruce Landsberg said the ubiquity of mobile phones presents an additional challenge for regulators who are converting a world where cars that are a capable of performing some, but not all, of the driving tasks are operating on public roads.  

"We have something in the neighborhood of 4 billion — with a B," he said of the number of cell phones currently in use in the world. "Many people carry more than one. And too many of them are using them while they're driving.

"People seem to think their freedom of using their (portable electronic device) is fine and they're not going to have a crash," Landsberg concluded. "And unfortunately, this situation proves that's incorrect."  


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Twitter: @Keith_Laing