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RightNation.US: NTSB Opens Docket on Tesla Crash - RightNation.US

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NTSB Opens Docket on Tesla Crash


The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recently released its ~500-page preliminary report ("docket") on the fatal 2016 crash of a Tesla Model S. The vehicle was being operated with "Autopilot", Tesla's suite of driver-assist technologies.

This is not to be confused with the preliminary report issued by the NHTSA which I wrote about back in February. The NHTSA is focused on highway safety whereas the NTSB is an independent Federal agency charged with investigating "every civil aviation accident [in] the United States and significant accidents in other modes of transportation – railroad, highway, marine and pipeline." Reportedly the new NTSB report does not contradict the earlier NHTSA report but contains far more information.

Due to its size, I have not yet read the NTSB report, and will rely on published articles to discuss certain points. Here are the NTSB links:

Press Release: NTSB Opens Docket on Tesla Crash
Docket: Link; this is a hyperlinked Table of Contents to the 40 individual documents in the docket.

Note the NTSB disclaimer:

The docket contains only factual information collected by NTSB investigators; it does not provide analysis, findings, recommendations, or probable cause determinations. No conclusions about how or why the crash occurred should be drawn from the docket. Analysis, findings, recommendations, and probable cause determinations related to the crash will be issued by the Board at a later date.



Business Insider Article

This article includes a satellite-style photo overview of the crash site (from the NTSB report), and a police report diagram of the accident.

New details about the fatal Tesla Autopilot crash reveal the driver's last minutes
Cadie Thompson
Jun. 20, 2017, 11:06 AM
Copyright © 2017 Business Insider Inc. All rights reserved.
Source; excerpts follow:

Quote

… Here are some of the new details included in the report:

  • There was no evidence that Joshua Brown, the driver of the Model S, was using his mobile phone or another electronic device when the crash occurred, as some initial reports suggested.
  • During the last 41 minutes of Brown's trip, the Model S was in Autopilot for 37.5 minutes. Brown had his hands off the wheel for a total of 37 minutes during the time the car was in Autopilot.
  • The Model S displayed the visual warning "hold steering wheel" seven times during the trip. Six of those were followed by auditory warnings.
  • The Model S was driving 74 mph on the highway when it was struck by a semitruck.

That last point is inaccurate; it was the car that struck the truck. I'll come back to the "electronic device" issue.

The earlier NHTSA report indicated the driver had at least 7-seconds to see the truck and react to it, but there was no "driver input" recorded (no steering, braking, etc). It said the last driver input was to increase the Autopilot speed to 74-mph minutes before the crash. The detail in the new NTSB report indicates just how much the driver relied upon the Autopilot; over 37-minutes in a 41-minute trip.

There's nothing wrong with that per se; if I was driving down lightly-traveled Florida highways, I'd almost certainly be using the cruise control most of the time. But with conventional cruise control, one still has to steer and brake; you're still engaged in driving the car. The driver in this accident appears to have tried to leverage the driver-assist technology into a virtually autonomous vehicle, which is not its purpose.

Relevant here is the vehicle warnings that he ignored. On multiple occasions, the car "said": "Hey, you're supposed to be driving here!" Presumably, he put a hand on the wheel to quell the warnings but eventually returned to "autonomous" mode. Note here that Tesla has since updated its software so that driver non-responsiveness to such warnings will result in Autopilot shutdown until the next vehicle restart. I'm not sure that's the best response due to the possibility of driver incapacitation but it's better than serial ignorance. ***

Although I suspected that driver inattention was the most significant contributing factor to this accident, I considered the possibility that he had become somehow incapacitated: Heart attack, stroke, seizure etc. So, I clicked through to the last document in the NTSB docket, the Medical Report, and he had no traces of (tested) controlled substances, and reportedly no medical history that would support sudden incapacitation. In my opinion, inattention is still the leading cause. (Apparently the truck driver is an occasional user of the kind bud.)

*** Side note: First I thought: If the Tesla is so advanced that it can change lanes for you, why not have it pull off onto the shoulder, shut down the car, and activate the flashers in cases like this (I.E.: possible medical issue because of driver non-responsiveness)? Perhaps even call for emergency response. Then I realized that the "punishment" might not fit the "crime" because stopped on a highway shoulder is an incredibly dangerous position. Kudos to LEOs, responders, maintenance crews, and anyone else who puts their safety and life on the line by working in close proximity to automotive traffic.



Automotive News Article

This is one of the weird aspects of this accident: The truck driver who was crossing in front of the Tesla, and whose trailer the car ran under, initially told a reporter that the Tesla driver was watching a Harry Potter movie behind the wheel. That was bizarre. There's simply no way a guy sitting in the cab of his truck would know what was going on in the cabin of a car approaching at 74-mph. He later stepped back and admitted that he hadn't seen it but he had heard the Harry Potter movie playing.

Still: No friggin way.

Tesla driver in fatal crash wasn't watching video, witness tells investigators
June 19, 2017 @ 4:26 pm
Katie Burke
© Crain Communications, Inc.
Source; excerpts follow:

Quote

A witness who was one of the first people to approach the crash site following a fatal Tesla accident in Florida last year told federal investigators he did not see or hear a video playing in the car in the moments after it came to a stop.

A truck driver also involved in the crash previously told The Associated Press that he had seen Harry Potter playing in the car after the accident, but the new witness told investigators he never saw the truck driver at the crash scene in the hour or so he stayed on site to talk to emergency responders…

The witness, Terrence Mulligan, said he did not see any signs of a video playing, despite reports of the truck driver saying he heard a Harry Potter film playing from the vehicle…

This harkens back to the "electronic device" point in the prior article referenced above. I felt that the truck driver was trying to cover his own butt because he had failed to yield when crossing an active traffic lane. How do we know he failed to yield?

If the Tesla driver had 7-seconds to see and respond to the truck crossing the road ahead of him, then the truck driver had 7-seconds to see the approaching car. And/or it took the truck driver more than 7-seconds to get his vehicle across the road. Right? (Please discuss as I'm not sure I'm giving this full consideration.)

Either way, there's this (source}:

Quote

… A Florida Highway Patrol spokesman said the truck driver was charged with a right of way traffic violation. He is due for a court hearing on Wednesday.

Of course, the truck driver cannot be blamed for the inattentiveness of the driver of an oncoming (speeding) car; yet it was his vehicle that was athwart the road at the time of the accident. I want to hear his preferably non-fantastical explanation for that.



Finally, Business Insider Editorial

This is an opinion piece by an automotive author who has (at least) a modicum of experience with the Tesla Autopilot driver-assist suite. And I readily admit my bias here; he seems to have a "drive the damn car" perspective similar to my own. You may have noticed that I no longer say "semi-autonomous" and persistently say: "DRIVER-assist". Emphasis on DRIVER. If you're not willing to accept and adhere to the responsibilities of operating a motor vehicle on public byways, then please, hire someone else to do it for you or take public transportation.

I checked out Tesla's Autopilot — and there's no way it can drive a car by itself
Matthew DeBord
Jun. 20, 2017, 5:43 PM
Copyright © 2017 Business Insider Inc. All rights reserved.
Source; excerpts follow:

Quote

… My opinion of Autopilot is entirely my own and not based on exhaustive or even remotely scientific testing. But I now think that the accidents that have occurred while the technology was activated were the result of drivers not making a rational evaluation of Autopilot's capabilities.

I couldn't get comfortable keeping my hands near the wheel or hovering them close by. I wanted my hands on the wheel at all times, and I think any reasonably experienced driver should feel the same way.

Beyond that, Autopilot requires monitoring. You must pay attention to what the system is doing to determine if it's sensible to leave it on. It demands more, not less, of the driver's attention.

I've watched some of the Autopilot videos Brown made before the fatal crash. It looks to me as if he was trying to push the envelope on what the system could do, consistently placing himself in a position to have to get his hands back on the wheel — and probably also on the brakes, deactivating Autopilot — to retain control of the vehicle…



Conclusion (for now)

I am not averse to the newer driver-assist technologies; when used properly, these can make the roads safer for all of us. I see these eventually being mandated like 3-point restraints, high-center-mount brake lights, and so on. Since America is such a "car culture", with everyone having equitable access to shared, public roads, and cars historically trending toward "more affordable and easier to drive", traffic density is likely to continue growing. More vehicles, more people, more risk.

Long before this 2016 accident, there was a growing epidemic of distracted drivers. Yes, cell phones were a big contributor to this problem but driver education (and testing) has simply not kept pace with teaching responsibility on our ever more crowded roadways. It seems that today, all you need to know is "Key and D" (turn the key and put it in Drive), and you're then state-licensed to participate in a hot mess. We have to be better than this.

If you don't want or like to drive then, please, don't get behind the wheel; there are plenty of alternatives. Personal transportation may be a convenience, an indicator of mobility and self-sufficiency, a fashion statement, or what have you… but it's also a HUGE responsibility; to you, to your passengers, and to everyone else on the roads. If you cannot, or are not willing to meet that responsibility, then just don't do it.


Finally, I offer my condolences and apologies to the family, friends, and loved ones of Joshua Brown. His tragic death has become a matter of public interest and discussion, and I am part of that. I think that Tesla (and other manufacturers) over-sold the capabilities of its technologies, tacitly reducing driver responsibility. I'm sorry for your loss.
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2 Comments On This Entry

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*** Side note: First I thought: If the Tesla is so advanced that it can change lanes for you, why not have it pull off onto the shoulder, shut down the car, and activate the flashers in cases like this (I.E.: possible medical issue because of driver non-responsiveness)? Perhaps even call for emergency response. Then I realized that the "punishment" might not fit the "crime" because stopped on a highway shoulder is an incredibly dangerous position. Kudos to LEOs, responders, maintenance crews, and anyone else who puts their safety and life on the line by working in close proximity to automotive traffic.


Plus, it would be illegal in many if not most states. Enforcement varies from state to state, but generally on limited-access highways such as interstates and tollways you're not supposed to stop on the shoulder except for 'bonafide' emergencies.


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2016 Florida Statutes: 316.1945 Stopping, standing, or parking prohibited in specified places

(1) Except when necessary to avoid conflict with other traffic, or in compliance with law or the directions of a police officer or official traffic control device, no person shall:

(a) Stop, stand, or park a vehicle:...

...

11. On the roadway or shoulder of a limited access facility, except as provided by regulation of the Department of Transportation, or on the paved portion of a connecting ramp; except that a vehicle which is disabled or in a condition improper to be driven as a result of mechanical failure or crash may be parked on such shoulder for a period not to exceed 6 hours. This provision is not applicable to a person stopping a vehicle to render aid to an injured person or assistance to a disabled vehicle in obedience to the directions of a law enforcement officer or to a person stopping a vehicle in compliance with applicable traffic laws.

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Besides, if the cars is THAT smart then it should be able to get to the nearest actual pull-off or designated safe place.
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Indeed!
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