Driver in Fatal Tesla Autopilot Crash Wasn’t Paying Attention: Feds

The Tesla driver who made history as the first man to die at the wheel of a semi-autonomous vehicle was not distracted by a movie while driving. But in a 37-minute period leading up to the May 2016 Florida accident, Joshua Brown apparently had his hands on the wheel for just 25 seconds.

That’s the finding of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in a 500-page report released this week. Previously, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported finding no evidence of defects in Brown’s Tesla Model S.

Tesla Model S involved in first fatal crash of semi-autonomous vehicle (Florida Highway Patrol photo)

Car gave multiple warnings before crash

According to the NTSB report, Autopilot, Tesla’s semi-autonomous system, was on for the majority of the trip, near Williston, Florida. When it detected the driver didn’t have his hands on the wheel, the car displayed a visual warning several times, “Hands Required — Not Detected.” Six times, it sounded a chime before displaying “Hands Required — Detected.”

NHTSA previously said Brown did not brake in the moments before the collision. His last action was to set the cruise control to 74 mph in a 65 zone. NHTSA said the truck would have been visible to Brown for at least seven seconds before impact, almost 700 feet at that speed.  But Brown “took no braking, steering, or other actions to avoid the collision.”

Tesla undercut trailer while truck was turning. (Florida Highway Patrol photo)

Changes to Tesla software

Tesla’s initial Autopilot software gave drivers considerable latitude in being hands-off. In the wake of the accident, Tesla last September made changes to Autopilot software, including limiting the time a driver can be hands-off before Tesla warns the driver and/or disables Autopilot, forcing the driver to take control. Tesla CEO Elon Musk said it likely would have prevented a crash like that one that killed Brown, a former Navy SEAL.

Tesla declined comment on the NTSB report. Earlier, Tesla said, “[Autopilot] does not allow the driver to abdicate responsibility.” It also said Autopilot was not designed to detect crossing traffic, especially a light trailer body against a bright sky. That’s common to adaptive cruise control (ACC) technology on most cars: ACC tracks vehicles moving in the same direction ahead of the car, but not vehicles crossing at right angles, or stopped vehicles.

Jack Landskroner, a lawyer for Brown’s family, said the NTSB report should end speculation that Brown was distracted by a movie. He said it was “unequivocally false” that Brown was watching a DVD movie just before the crash. (One of the first people at the crash scene initially reported hearing a video being played, but others didn’t see or hear a video playing.)

Also in the report, NTSB griped that Tesla’s vehicle data recorder tracks speed and other information such as Autopilot warnings in a proprietary data format. NTSB “had to rely on Tesla to provide the data in engineering units using proprietary manufacturer software.” At present, there’s no requirement that automakers track the actions of the car and its driver in a common format.

This is an initial NTSB report with just the data, the group said, adding that “analysis, findings, recommendations, and probable cause determinations related to the crash will be issued by the Board at a later date.”

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