N.T.S.B. Rules on Fatal Crash with Tesla's Autopilot


In May of 2016, Tesla's Autopilot system came under federal scrutiny after Ohio resident Joshua Brown was killed on a state highway outside Williston FL. The 40-year old driver was operating his 2015 Tesla Model S on Autopilot when the car crashed into a tractor-trailer that crossed the road in front of him. With Brown's car traveling at 74 miles per hour, the autonomous driving system failed to activate the brakes in time to avoid a collision. After more than a year, the National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the system controlling the car had played a major role in the fatal crash.

The N.T.S.B. concluded that Tesla's Autopilot system that is capable of automatically steering and controlling the vehicle had performed as intended but lacked the safeguards to lock-out a driver who was using it improperly. This brings an interesting element of liability to the forefront, since the driver was able to operate the vehicle autonomously on a roadway for which it was not designed. The board's earlier report concluded that the fault was due to a combined effect of human error and the auto manufacturer's lack of system controls. Thus, the system itself was not deemed to have operating flaws.

The circumstances leading up to the deadly accident indicated several human errors. Tesla's Autopilot system was intended for use on roadways with limited access and not routes with cross traffic intersections. In addition, prior to the crash, the Autopilot's system had signaled several times for Brown to keep his hands on the steering wheel. The system requirements are for the driver to also keep an eye on the road during operations. Mr. Brown had posted videos online prior to the accident demonstrating how it was possible to go several minutes without looking at the road and engaging the controls.

Following the deadly collision, the automaker modified the Autopilot to warn drivers more frequently to keep their hands on the wheel. If a driver fails to do so, the system will disengage and cannot be turned on without stopping the car and restarting the engine. As the Trump administration and government regulators are eager for manufacturers to move forward with autonomous technologies, the Transportation Department has recently overturned policies set by the Obama administration calling for automakers to follow more stringent regulations.

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