In May 2016, Joshua D. Brown lost his life in what was at the time thought to be the first ever fatal crash involving an autonomous vehicle. 16 months on, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has released its report detailing exactly what went wrong when the 40-year-old’s Tesla Model S struck a turning lorry.
“A truck driver’s failure to yield the right of way and a car driver’s inattention due to overreliance on vehicle automation are the probable cause [of the crash],” the NTSB said. The report concedes that recognising and slowing down for the lorry wasn’t something Autopilot was designed for, but went on to say that the system “allowed prolonged disengagement from the driving task and enabled the driver to use it in ways inconsistent with manufacturer guidance and warnings.”
In other words, Brown was too dependent on Autopilot, and the system didn’t do enough to curb his inappropriate use of the semi-autonomous feature. “If automated vehicle control systems do not automatically restrict their own operation to conditions for which they were designed and are appropriate, the risk of driver misuse remains,” the NTSB concluded.
The organisation’s preliminary findings had earlier indicated that Brown had his hands on the wheel for just 25 seconds over a 37 minute period.
The NTSB noted that changes have since been made to Autopilot, reducing the length of time users can keep their hands off the wheel for before being issued a warning. Nonetheless, numerous recommendations were made, urging manufacturers to “limit the use of automated control systems to conditions for which they are designed,” and develop better ways of measuring driver engagement.
NTSB Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt III summed up the situation rather aptly, stating:
“While automation in highway transportation has the potential to save tens of thousands of lives, until that potential is fully realized, people still need to safely drive their vehicles.”