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Tesla driver died ‘playing game on mobile phone’

Tesla Model X

An investigation into a fatal crash involving a Tesla Model X being driven on autopilot in Mountain View, Calfornia, has found that the driver was distracted using his mobile phone.   

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) held a public board meeting on Tuesday ( February 25) during which it determined the probable cause for the fatal March 23, 2018, crash

Based on the findings of its investigation the NTSB issued a total of nine safety recommendations whose recipients include the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, SAE International, Apple and other manufacturers of portable electronic devices.

The NTSB also reiterated seven previously issued safety recommendations.

The NTSB determined the Tesla autopilot system’s limitations, the driver’s overreliance on the autopilot and the driver’s distraction – likely from a mobile phone game app – caused the crash.

It found that the Tesla vehicle’s ineffective monitoring of driver engagement was determined to have contributed to the crash.

Systemic problems with the California Department of Transportation’s repair of traffic safety hardware and the California Highway Patrol’s failure to report damage to a crash attenuator led to the Tesla striking a damaged and non-operational crash attenuator, which the NTSB said contributed to the severity of the driver’s injuries.

“This tragic crash clearly demonstrates the limitations of advanced driver assistance systems available to consumers today,” said NTSB chairman Robert Sumwalt.

“There is not a vehicle currently available to US consumers that is self-driving. Period. Every vehicle sold to US consumers still requires the driver to be actively engaged in the driving task, even when advanced driver assistance systems are activated.

“If you are selling a car with an advanced driver assistance system, you’re not selling a self-driving car. If you are driving a car with an advanced driver assistance system, you don’t own a self-driving car.”

He continued: “In this crash we saw an overreliance on technology, we saw distraction, we saw a lack of policy prohibiting cell phone use while driving, and we saw infrastructure failures that, when combined, led to this tragic loss.

“The lessons learned from this investigation are as much about people as they are about the limitations of emerging technologies.

“Crashes like this one, and thousands more that happen every year due to distraction, are why 'Eliminate Distractions' remains on the NTSB’s Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements.”

The 38-year-old driver of the 2017 Tesla Model X P100D electric vehicle (EV) died from multiple blunt-force injuries after his SUV entered the gore area of the US-101 and State Route 85 exit ramp and struck a damaged and non-operational crash attenuator at a speed of 70.8 mph.

The Tesla was then struck by two other vehicles, resulting in the injury of one other person.

The Tesla’s high-voltage battery was breached in the collision and a post-crash fire ensued. Witnesses removed the Tesla driver from the vehicle before it was engulfed in flames.

The NTSB learned from Tesla’s ‘Carlog’ data (data stored on the non-volatile memory SD card in the media control unit) that during the last 10 seconds prior to impact the Tesla’s autopilot system was activated with the traffic-aware cruise control set at 75 mph.

Between six and 10 seconds prior to impact, the SUV was traveling between 64 and 66 mph following another vehicle at a distance of about 83 feet.

The Tesla’s lane-keeping assist system (autosteer) initiated a left steering input toward the gore area while the SUV was about 5.9 seconds and about 560 feet from the crash attenuator.

No driver-applied steering wheel torque was detected by autosteer at the time of the steering movement and this hands-off steering indication continued up to the point of impact.

The Tesla’s cruise control no longer detected a lead vehicle ahead when the SUV was about 3.9 seconds and 375 feet from the attenuator, and the SUV began accelerating from 61.9 mph to the preset cruise speed of 75 mph.

The Tesla’s forward collision warning system did not provide an alert and automatic emergency braking did not activate. The SUV driver did not apply the brakes and did not initiate any steering movement to avoid the crash.

The driver was an avid gamer and game developer. A review of mobile phone records and data retrieved from his Apple iPhone 8 Plus showed a game application was active and was the frontmost open application on his phone during his trip to work.

The driver’s lack of evasive action combined with data indicating his hands were not detected on the steering wheel, is consistent with a person distracted by a portable electronic device.

The final rest locations of the Tesla, Audi and Mazda vehicles involved in the March 23, 2018, crash in Mountain View, California, are depicted. Photo courtesy of S. Engleman.

Seven safety issues were identified in the crash investigation:

  • Driver Distraction
  • Risk Mitigation Pertaining to Monitoring Driver Engagement
  • Risk Assessment Pertaining to Operational Design Domain (the operating conditions under which a driving automation system is designed to function)
  • Limitations of Collision Avoidance Systems
  • Insufficient Federal Oversight of Partial Driving Automation Systems
  • Need for Event Data Recording Requirements for Driving Automation Systems
  • Highway Infrastructure Issues

To address these safety issues the NTSB made nine safety recommendations that seek:

  • Expansion of NHTSA’s New Car Assessment Program testing of forward collision avoidance system performance.
  • Evaluation of Tesla autopilot- equipped vehicles to determine if the system’s operating limitations, foreseeability of misuse, and ability to operate vehicles outside the intended operational design domain pose an unreasonable risk to safety.
  • Collaborative development of standards for driver monitoring systems to minimize driver disengagement, prevent automation complacency and account for foreseeable misuse of the automation.
  • Review and revision of distracted driving initiatives to increase employers’ awareness of the need for strong cell phone policies prohibiting portable electronic device use while driving.
  • Modification of enforcement strategies for employers who fail to address the hazards of distracted driving.
  • Development of a distracted driving lock-out mechanism or application for portable electronic devices that will automatically disable any driver-distracting functions when a vehicle is in motion.
  • Development of policy that bans non-emergency use of portable electronic devices while driving by all employees and contractors driving company vehicles, operating company issued portable electronic devices or when using a portable electronic device to engage in work-related communications.

Lessons learned from the emergency response to the post-crash fire will be incorporated into a separate NTSB report on electric vehicle battery fires. That report is expected to be released in the third quarter of calendar year 2020.

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  • Colin Paterson - 27/02/2020 13:08

    The increasing proliferation of ADAS on vehicles can be as distracting and misleading as they are beneficial. 'Auto-pilot' and similar terms might lull the 'driver' into a false sense of security - literally!

  • Iain Storey - 28/02/2020 11:32

    One has to wonder why the proposed ban of non-emergency use of a mobile device would only be applied to work related activities? Surely this is an opening which would leave extensive 'room' for legal challenges? An outright ban is, I believe, the correct solution, as complacency and reliance on technology is already showing signs of failure to prevent foreseeable events which this example unfortunately highlights.

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