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Car and Driver: Fatal Tesla Crash Won’t Slow Federal Push for Autonomous Cars

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Tesla Update v7.0 Enables Self-driving Test In ChinaThe fatal crash of a vehicle operating under the guidance of an autonomous feature won’t hinder development of self-driving technologies.

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It was probably no surprise that Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk promised expansion of the fledgling technology Thursday. In a blog post, he wrote that it would be “morally reprehensible” to delay further introduction of the company’s Autopilot feature, even as it contributed to a fatal crash in May. Perhaps of greater consequence, the head of the federal safety agency charged with ensuring vehicle safety offered his continued support on Thursday as well.

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Despite the crash that killed Joshua Brown in May, Mark Rosekind, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said autonomous vehicles hold the potential to save tens of thousands of lives each year on American roadways. “No one incident will derail the DOT and NHTSA from its mission to improve safety on roads through new life-saving technologies,” he said while speaking to a gathering of industry and public-policy experts working on autonomous technologies.

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Rosekind did not address specifics of the Tesla Motors crash, as investigators from his agency are continuing their probe of the May 7 crash in Florida, in which neither the “Autopilot” feature nor Brown braked when a tractor trailer crossed their paths along a divided highway. It was the first known time an autonomous technology was activated in a fatal collision.

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“If we wait for perfect, we’ll be waiting a long time.”
-– Mark Rosekind
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Brown’s death aside, Rosekind expressed more concern for the alarming rise in traffic fatalities on American roadways. Preliminary estimates for 2015 indicate 35,200 people lost their lives in motor-vehicle crashes. Should that data hold, it would represent a 7.7-percent increase over the previous year, the sharpest single-year rise in deaths since 1964.

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“We’re not in a good place,” he said, addressing 1500 attendees at the Automated Vehicle Symposium in San Francisco. “We are in a bad place. This is a bad situation, and we should be in a desperate situation.” Alluding to the potential for early challenges with autonomous technology to contribute to crashes, he said, “If we wait for perfect, we’ll be waiting a long time.”

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National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Announces Another Takata Recall

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NHTSA administrator Mark Rosekind.
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In a more measured way, the statements echoed those of Musk, who addressed the “Autopilot” feature’s future in a statement Thursday that outlined several of the company’s upcoming initiatives. Explaining why the company chose to release the technology last fall rather than waiting for a more refined version, Musk wrote, “the most important reason is that, when used correctly, it is already significantly safer than a person driving by themselves.”

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Some might contest the validity of that statement. But if the numbers don’t back up the claim today, there’s widespread belief that self-driving technology will back it up in the near future. Human behavior is responsible for 94 percent of all traffic crashes, and Rosekind believes autonomous tech could cut the death rate by half. His boss, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, has even more ambitious hopes. One day earlier, he said the potential of an 80-percent crash reduction was “enormous.” Rather than go on the defensive in the wake of the accident, Rosekind delivered something of a stump speech Thursday.

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“We see a future where technology cuts roadway fatalities and stops a would-be drunk driver from ever hitting the road,” he said. “We see a future where disabled people can reclaim independence and freedom in a personal vehicle. We see a future when a fully automated self-driving car can relieve vehicle occupants of all driving responsibilities, leaving them free to make a phone call, read a book, or chase a Pokémon Go.”

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The last point was a critical one. Industry experts are wondering whether the government will favor an incremental approach to introducing self-driving technology versus one that endorses fully removing motorists from the driving equation. On that point, Rosekind said NHTSA would remain neutral and not choose between the two.

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That was welcome news for developers who are awaiting federal guidance on autonomous deployment and operations. In fact, while Rosekind’s speech was largely appreciated by the audience, their main disappointment Thursday seemed to be he didn’t deliver that guidance. DOT officials had once indicated it would be delivered in July, but Foxx said earlier the target delivery timeframe had moved toward the end of the summer. Rosekind indicated Thursday it was in the final stages of formulation.

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“That guidance is being reviewed, tweaked, and perfected as we speak,” he said. “It’s an important document, so it’s important we get it right.”

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