WASHINGTON: The National Transportation Safety Board on Tuesday sharply criticized Tesla Inc.'s lack of system safeguards in a fatal 2018 Autopilot crash in California and U.S. regulators' approach in overseeing the driver assistance systems.
NTSB board members questioned Tesla over the design of its semi-automated driving assistance system and condemned the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) for a "hands-off approach" to regulating the increasingly popular systems.
The board expressed growing frustration with the failure of U.S. regulators to take a more aggressive approach to overseeing driver assistance systems and also faulted Apple Inc and other smartphone makers for refusing to disable devices when users are driving.
The board's criticism posed a direct challenge to the auto industry’s efforts to profit from partially automated vehicles and the smartphone industry’s quest to keep user eyes on their devices.
The NTSB can only make recommendations, while the NHTSA regulates U.S. vehicles. It has sent teams to investigate 14 Tesla crashes in which Autopilot is suspected of being in use.
The California crash - involving a driver who was playing a game on his phone during the fatal trip - illustrates that "semi-autonomous vehicles can lead drivers to be complacent, highly complacent, about their systems, and it also points out that smartphones manipulating them, can be so addictive, that people aren't going to put them down," NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said.
"It's time to stop enabling drivers in any partially automated vehicle to pretend that they have driverless cars. Because they don't have driverless cars," he said.
The NHTSA said it will carefully review the NTSB's report. The agency added that all commercial motor vehicles "require the human driver to be in control at all times, and all states hold the human driver responsible for vehicle operations."
Sumwalt said Tesla had allowed drivers to remove their hands from the wheel for up to three minutes under certain conditions.
The NTSB said Tesla added safeguards to require quicker warnings at higher speeds for drivers without their hands on the wheel.
Regulators in Europe place limitations on Autopilot use and Tesla issues alerts there for hands-off driving within 15 seconds, the NTSB said.
Tesla did not respond to requests for comment.
Concerns have grown about systems that can perform driving tasks for extended stretches with little or no human intervention, but cannot completely replace human drivers.
Tesla drivers say they are able to avoid holding the steering wheel for extended periods while using the driver assistance system Autopilot, but the company advises keeping hands on the wheel and paying attention.
NTSB Vice Chairman Bruce Landsberg called Autopilot "completely inadequate" and noted that vehicles had repeatedly crashed into large obstacles while using the system.
NTSB board member Thomas Chapman said NHTSA had shown a "lack of leadership" in addressing automated driving systems. "Highway vehicles weighing thousands of pounds and equipped with powerful yet still-evolving automation are operating on highways based, at best, on mere guidelines," he said.
Sumwalt said Tesla - unlike five other auto manufacturers - has ignored NTSB safety recommendations issued in 2017.
Tesla's driver assistance system is tied to at least three deadly crashes since 2016 and suspected in others.
Walter Huang, a 38-year-old Apple software engineer, was driving his Tesla Model X in 2018 in Mountain View, California, in Autopilot mode at about 70 miles per hour (113 kph) when it crashed into a safety barrier known as a "crash attenuator." The NTSB said Huang had been using an iPhone and logs recovered show a word-building game was active during Huang's fatal trip.
The NTSB also called on cellphone manufacturers to add more safeguards to prevent the misuse of devices by drivers.
Sumwalt noted that Apple does not have a distracted driving policy, but said it should have one. Apple says it expects its employees to follow the law.
(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Chris Reese, Sandra Maler and Dan Grebler)