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U.S. authorities: Tesla’s Autopilot didn’t cause fatal crash

The Tesla Model S just got vindicated by U.S. authorities. (Photos: Tesla)

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Angelo Rychel
Angelo Rychel
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After months of investigation, regulators found no defect in the controversial semi-autonomous driving function.

In what represents a major victory for Tesla, U.S. authorities have cleared the automaker’s Autopilot function of any fault in what turned out to be a fatal crash in Florida in May 2016. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) concluded in a report released on Thursday that no vehicles have to be recalled. However, the agency also criticized the naming and advertisement of Tesla’s partially automated system – claiming it gives customers the impression that the vehicle is fully self-driving.

On May 7, a Tesla Model S electric sedan set to Autopilot collided with a truck in Florida. Sadly, the driver of the Tesla, Joshua Brown, did not survive the accident. Tesla released a statement in June saying the crash most likely occurred because “neither Autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied.” The crash sparked NHTSA investigations into this and other incidents as well as a heated public debate over the safety of Tesla’s Autopilot and automated driving features on the whole.

The media quickly labelled Brown “the first victim of a self-driving accident” – an inaccurate assessment considering the Autopilot is a driver assistance system with level 2 automation. It uses radar and cameras to scan the road for obstacles and comes with an automated emergency braking system. But the debate also reflected widespread criticism regarding Tesla’s marketing of the function. While Tesla has always stressed that the driver has to pay attention to the road at all times, a quick search on YouTube clearly shows that many Tesla fans do not heed warning. It is alleged that Joshua Brown was even watching a movie when the deadly incident happened.

Tesla’s loyal fanbase, on the other hand, has continued to staunchly support CEO Elon Musk and his company. Musk himself accused the media of “killing people” by over-reporting Autopilot crashes. The NHTSA report now represents a major vindication for him. Its findings conclude that Joshua Brown was simply not paying enough attention to the road: “The Florida fatal crash appears to have involved a period of extended distraction.” Although the Autopilot did not prevent the accident, the system performed as it was designed.

In what is more good news for Tesla, the NHTSA’s investigation also indicates that the Autopilot notably increases road safety: “The data show that the Tesla vehicles crash rate dropped by almost 40 percent after Autosteer installation.” Tesla responded by welcoming the report. “We appreciate the thoroughness of N.H.T.S.A.’s report and its conclusion,” the company said in a statement.

It remains to be seen how the findings will impact the public debate. Critics will likely continue to complain about what they deem misleading marketing by Tesla. “Carmakers have to be clear on what the driver’s responsibility is,” senior car analyst Michelle Krebs told the New York Times. “No car buyer should think there are fully automated vehicles on the market.” That said, Elon Musk will be encouraged to proceed with his bold ambitions. In September, Tesla released an over-the-air update of the Autopilot to increase safety. According to Musk, it might have prevented the fatal crash. By the end of 2017, Musk wants the Autopilot function to be able to drive autonomously from L.A. to New York.

Read the full NHTSA report here.

Read a NY Times article on the topic here.

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