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Car and Driver: NTSB Issues Initial Report on Fatal Tesla ‘Autopilot’ Crash


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2015 Tesla Model S P90DThe driver of a Tesla Motors Model S killed while using its semi-autonomous Autopilot feature was exceeding the speed limit at the time of the crash, according to a preliminary report issued by the National Transportation Safety Board on Tuesday.


System performance data showed that Joshua Brown was traveling 74 mph along a Florida highway just prior to colliding with a tractor trailer that crossed his path, the report said. The posted speed limit in the area was 65 mph. There’s no indication—at least not yet—the crash could have been avoided had Brown adhered to the speed limit. The NTSB preliminary report establishes the basic facts of the collision; it does not draw any conclusions about the May 7 crash. Investigators say their probe is ongoing, and that a final report likely won’t be released for a year.


Investigators confirmed that Brown, 40, had engaged the Autopilot system, and that the Traffic-Aware Cruise Control and Autosteer lane-keeping assistance were functioning. The car also was equipped with automatic emergency braking designed to apply the breaks to either avoid or mitigate a frontal collision, the NTSB report said.

 It’s not in the spec to make a decision to tell the vehicle
-to do anything based on that left turn, that lateral turn
-across the path.

Neither Brown nor the Autopilot system braked when the truck, carrying a load of blueberries, turned across its path. Photographs that accompanied Tuesday’s report show the Model S impacted the trailer just to the rear of its midpoint. The collision sheared much of the roof structure off the Model S, which continued underneath the trailer and then for another 347 feet.


“After exiting from underneath the semitrailer, the car coasted at a shallow angle off the right side of the roadway, traveled approximately 297 feet, and then collided with a utility pole,” the NTSB preliminary report said. “The car broke the pole and traveled an additional 50 feet, during which it rotated counterclockwise and came to rest perpendicular to the highway in the front yard of a private residence.”


Brown was pronounced dead at the scene. He’s the first motorist killed in a crash in which an autonomous feature was engaged. The NTSB is not the only federal agency investigating the crash. Officials with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration have opened a preliminary evaluation of the technology’s role in the wreck.


Tesla Motors says that Autopilot is a “beta” technology, and that human motorists agree to remain responsible for all driving operations when the semi-autonomous feature is used. The company did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday. In an earlier statement regarding the crash, a Tesla spokesperson wrote that, “neither Autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied.”


But a spokesperson for Mobileye, the supplier which makes the chips that process visual images captured by Autopilot’s cameras, says its product is not designed to flag the sort of driving scenario that Brown encountered.


“The design of our system that we provide to Tesla was not . . . it’s not in the spec to make a decision to tell the vehicle to do anything based on that left turn, that lateral turn across the path,” said Dan Galves, a Mobileye spokesperson. “Certainly, that’s a situation where we would hope to be able to get to the point where the vehicle can handle that, but it’s not there yet.”


Hours before the release of the NTSB report on Tuesday, Mobileye said it was ending its partnership with Tesla Motors once agreements for the current production cycle are met. The supplier, based in Israel, decided to terminate its relationship with Tesla due to circumstances involving the fatal crash.


“Moving forward to more advanced autonomy is a paradigm shift both in terms of function complexity and the need to ensure an extremely high level of functionality,” Mobileye chairman Amnon Shashua said on an earnings call Tuesday morning. “There’s much at stake here for Mobileye’s reputation and the industry at large. Mobileye believes this requires partnerships that go beyond the normal OEM-supplier relationship.”


Putting a finer point on it, Shashua tells The Wall Street Journal: “I think in a partnership, we need to be there on all aspects of how the technology is being used, and not simply providing technology and not being in control of how it is being used.”


Mobileye has relationships with several automakers, including a new partnership with BMW and Intel announced earlier this month. The three companies plan to pursue fully autonomous technology as a basis for a new mobility service that will hit roads by 2021.


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