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Tesla ignored safety board’s Autopilot recommendations, chairman says

Tesla ignored safety board’s Autopilot recommendations, chairman says


The company hasn’t officially responded to NTSB’s call to limit Autopilot misuse

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Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Tesla ignored safety recommendations made by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) about its Autopilot driver assistance system, the board’s chairman Robert Sumwalt said on Tuesday.

The NTSB recommended in 2017 that Tesla and five other automakers working on advanced driver assistance systems should add safeguards that make it harder to misuse those systems. The board also recommended that automakers should place limits on where and when systems like Autopilot can be used.

The five other automakers officially responded to the recommendations within the 90-day window that the safety board prescribes, and the NTSB officially flagged those responses as acceptable. But while Tesla did increase the frequency of alerts when drivers take their hands off the steering wheel while using Autopilot, Tesla never officially responded to the recommendations.

Five other automakers answered within the 90-day window, but Tesla hasn’t answered in 881 days

“One manufacturer ignored us. And that manufacturer is Tesla,” Sumwalt said on Tuesday during the beginning of a hearing about a fatal 2018 crash that involved Autopilot.

“We ask that recommendation recipients respond to us within 90 days. That’s all we ask. Give us a response within 90 days. Tell us what you intend to do,” Sumwalt said. “But it’s been 881 days since these recommendations were sent to Tesla, and we’ve heard nothing.”

Tesla did not respond to a request for comment.

Sumwalt spent his opening remarks reinforcing the fact that there are currently no commercially available self-driving cars, and driver assistance systems like Autopilot need to be closely monitored when in use. But he also said he believes there’s still too much room for people to use the technology in dangerous ways — for instance, the driver who died in the crash that was the subject of the hearing.

NTSB investigators found that the driver, Apple employee Walter Huang, had been playing a mobile game on his drive to work using a company-issued phone in the moments before he crashed into a concrete barrier on US-101 in 2018.

Sumwalt took Apple to task for not having a distracted driving policy that could have helped prevent this specific case of Autopilot misuse. He said that while many people consider Apple to be a technology leader, he considers the company to be “lagging behind” in this area.

Sumwalt took Apple to task for not having a distracted driving policy

In response, Apple said it expects its employees to follow the law and pointed The Verge to two support pages for the company’s “Do Not Disturb While Driving” feature.

Sumwalt advocated for wide adoption of lockout features like Do Not Disturb While Driving during his opening remarks. “It is not anti-technology to ask that mobile devices prevent drivers from engaging in distracting activity through the simple installation of a lockout mechanism or application,” he said. “It is pro-safety.”

But distracted driving is just one piece of the puzzle, and Sumwalt said the crash being discussed on Tuesday was a result of the automotive industry’s aggressive approach to driver assistance systems and a lack of oversight from the federal government’s enforcing safety agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

“What struck me most about the circumstances of this crash was the lack of system safeguards to prevent foreseeable misuses of technology,” Sumwalt said in his prepared remarks on Tuesday. “Instead, industry keeps implementing technology in such a way that people can get injured or killed, ignoring this Board’s recommendations intended to help them prevent such tragedies.”

“Equally disturbing,” he continued, “government regulators have provided scant oversight, ignoring this Board’s recommendations for system safeguards.” Sumwalt received support on this issue from former NHTSA administrator Joan Claybrook before Tuesday’s hearing. Claybrook told Politico that NHTSA has “failed to regulate” Autopilot.

Sumwalt and the NTSB are expected to propose new recommendations at the end of Tuesday’s hearing, to which Tesla (and any other automakers named) will again have 90 days to respond.