The driver of a Tesla Inc Model X vehicle using Autopilot did not have his hands on the steering wheel in the six seconds before a fatal crash in California in March, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board said Thursday.
The NTSB's preliminary report states that all "aspects of the crash remain under investigation as the NTSB determines the probable cause, with the intent of issuing safety recommendations to prevent similar crashes". Early media reports have said that the software may have sped up before that crash too. The NTSB said Huang's vehicle sped up from 62 miles per hour to 70.8 miles per hour in the last three seconds prior to the crash. According to the NTSB, not only did the Tesla Autopilot steer into the concrete divider, it actually sped up.
Shortly after the March 23 crash that killed Huang, Tesla released a statement that said "the only way for this accident to have occurred is if Mr. Huang was not paying attention to the road".
The report said the auto was moving at about 71 miles per hour in a 65 mph zone when the crash occurred, and the "traffic-aware cruise control" was set at 75 mph.
The report also says that Autopilot was engaged four times during the 32-minute drive, including for the 18 minutes and 55 seconds before the crash.
A Tesla spokesperson declined to comment on the NTSB report, and referred to a March 28 company blog post on the matter in which Tesla said, "Autopilot does not prevent all accidents - such a standard would be impossible - but it makes them much less likely to occur". The speed limit was 65 miles per hour, and the car's adaptive cruise control was set at 75.
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The data also shows that Huang's hand were only on the steering wheel for 34 seconds total in the 60 seconds leading up to the crash. But that device had been damaged in a previous crash on March 12.
The report raised an issue for Tesla vehicles with Autopilot, as well as other vehicles with adaptive cruise control, said Bryant Walker Smith, an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law. Federal agencies are investigating two other crashes in which Teslas ran into stopped fire department vehicles.
Tesla's system may have a problem spotting or stopping for stationary objects. That has lead some technology developers to focus on fully driverless technology, which requires nothing from passengers.
Last month, a Model S traveling in Southern California hit an unoccupied parked police vehicle while reportedly using Autopilot, prompting some calls that Tesla should stop marketing its cars as "self-driving". There was no braking or evasive steering detected prior to impact. Some say it lulls drivers into a false sense of security, making them vulnerable to a crash.
The Tesla collided with a so-called crash attenuator, a device covering the concrete barrier that's created to absorb a vehicle impact to lower risks of damage and injuries.