Feds Call Tesla's AutoPilot Safe

Not only does NHTSA exonerate AutoPilot for the May 2016 fatality, it credits the system for reducing crashes by 40 percent overall

1 min read
NHTSA says Tesla's AutoPilot not at fault for car crash
Image: Tesla Motors

Not only does the U.S. road safety regulator clear Tesla’s AutoPilot for any responsibility in causing a fatal crash in May 2016, the agency even credits the system for reducing crashes by 40 percent overall.

In the report, released yesterday [pdf], the National Highway Transportation Administration said that the crash—a side collision in an intersection between a Tesla Model S and a truck—was due to driver distraction that lasted for at least 7 seconds. It concluded the automatic emergency braking system (AEB) was not to blame because it hadn’t been designed for such a scenario.

“AEB systems used in the automotive industry through Model Year 2016 are rear-end collision avoidance technologies that are not designed to reliably perform in all crash modes, including crossing path collisions,” the report said.

The effect of autonomous driving system on collisionsImage: Tesla Motors

More important, NHTSA said that Autosteer, another element in Tesla’s driver-assistance package, had reduced crashes by nearly 40 percent. Before installation of Autosteer there were 1.3 crashes involving airbag performance for every million miles driven; that fell to 0.8 after installation. 

Many have criticized AutoPilot not so much for its technical prowess as for its ambitious-sounding name, which might be taken as an encouragement to rely on the system to drive the car without human supervision. NHTSA points out that Tesla has addressed the problem by giving drivers visual cues to test their attentiveness: miss one cue too many and you’ll "strike out," turning off Autopilot until you stop the car.

The Conversation (0)

Self-Driving Cars Work Better With Smart Roads

Intelligent infrastructure makes autonomous driving safer and less expensive

9 min read
A photograph shows a single car headed toward the viewer on the rightmost lane of a three-lane road that is bounded by grassy parkways, one side of which is planted with trees. In the foreground a black vertical pole is topped by a crossbeam bearing various instruments. 

This test unit, in a suburb of Shanghai, detects and tracks traffic merging from a side road onto a major road, using a camera, a lidar, a radar, a communication unit, and a computer.

Shaoshan Liu

Enormous efforts have been made in the past two decades to create a car that can use sensors and artificial intelligence to model its environment and plot a safe driving path. Yet even today the technology works well only in areas like campuses, which have limited roads to map and minimal traffic to master. It still can’t manage busy, unfamiliar, or unpredictable roads. For now, at least, there is only so much sensory power and intelligence that can go into a car.

To solve this problem, we must turn it around: We must put more of the smarts into the infrastructure—we must make the road smart.

Keep Reading ↓Show less