NTSB report: Driver in fatal autonomous Tesla crash was warned multiple times

By Tyson Fisher, Land Line staff writer | 6/21/2017

The National Transportation Safety Board released more than 500 pages of information pertaining to the Tesla crash in May 2016 that claimed the driver’s life after it struck a tractor-trailer. The verdict: Tesla’s autonomous technology is not to blame as the driver was warned multiple times to keep hands on the wheel.

Less than a year ago, NTSB released its preliminary report of the May 7, 2016, crash near Williston, Fla., on U.S. Highway 27A near mile marker 29. A 2015 Tesla Model S 70D with autonomous features struck a 2003 Utility reefer pulled by a 2014 Freightliner Cascadia turning left across the highway.

Most of the information from the preliminary report was confirmed in the recently released docket, including:

  • The Tesla struck the trailer and passed underneath;
  • The Tesla coasted nearly 300 feet into a utility pole, breaking it, and then continued for an additional 50 feet before spinning to a stop perpendicular to the highway;
  • Impact of crash sheared off the roof of the Tesla; and
  • The Tesla was traveling 74 mph on a 65 mph highway and running the Traffic-Aware Cruise Control (TACC) and Autosteer automation features.

At the time of the preliminary report, NTSB was still collecting and analyzing data from Tesla’s electronic systems that recorded and transmitted vehicle performance data. That information is now in.

According to the final report, the Tesla driver had the Autopilot Technology Package option installed, including Autopark, TACC, Autosteer, Auto Lane Change and Forward Collision Warning.

NTSB concluded that nothing indicated that the Forward Collision Warning system was disabled. However, data did not indicate that the warning system was activated at any point during the crash event either.

TACC is a “cruise control system that maintains the set cruise speed, applies brakes when approaching a slower moving lead vehicle to preserve a following distance, or accelerates to the set cruising speed when forward area is no longer obstructed,” according to the report. Autosteer automatically steers the vehicle to keep it within its traveling lane. TACC and Autosteer were both activated during the crash.

Both the TACC and Autosteer feature come with a warning reminding drivers their attention is needed at all times:

Vehicle recorder data revealed the trip lasted 41 minutes, the first 2.5 minutes of which were operated manually. TACC and Autosteer were used for more than 90 percent of the trip, or approximately 37.5 minutes. Of those 37.5 minutes, the Tesla’s system did not detect hands on the steering wheel for about 37 minutes.

As a result, the system issued a visual warning to the Tesla driver seven times. An audio warning was issued with six of those visual warnings.

Initial news reports suggested that the Tesla driver was watching a movie just before the crash. However, NTSB revealed that no in-vehicle distractions occurred. A cellphone, laptop and several other electronics were found in the wreckage, but no evidence suggested any of the devices were in use during or just before the crash.

NTSB also could not find any other factors that could have caused the crash. The Tesla driver was found to be in great health with a negative toxicology report. Family members reported the driver had plenty of rest the days before the crash, ruling out fatigue. Also, the driver was described as single, never married, did not have children and was just returning from a vacation, eliminating popular sources of stress.

Ohio Registrar of Motor Vehicles revealed that the Tesla driver had nine traffic violations between July 2010 and September 2015, eight of which were for speeding and one for failing to obey traffic signal. No other crashes are on record for the driver nor had the man’s license ever been suspended, revoked or denied.

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