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Safety group calls for Tesla recall after NTSB report

Over-reliance on "Autopilot" cited in NTSB report. Credit: Center for Auto Safety.

An auto safety watchdog group is demanding that the Trump Administration recall Tesla’s Model S P85 car after the nation’s top accident investigation agency found that the company’s self-driving technology played a role in a January 2018 crash.

A report issued on September 4 by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined that the “probable cause” of the crash, in which the 2014-model Tesla rear-ended a parked fire truck on a California highway, was due in part to Tesla’s Autopilot design, “which permitted the driver to disengage from the driving task,” the report stated.

Other causal factors, according to the NTSB, were the driver’s “inattention and over-reliance on the vehicle’s advanced driver assistance system” as well as the driver’s use of the system “in ways inconsistent with guidance and warnings from the manufacturer.”

In response, Tesla pointed out that their car owners have “driven billions of miles” with Autopilot engaged, with data from the company’s quarterly Vehicle Safety Report showing that drivers using it are safer than those operating without it.

“While our driver-monitoring system for Autopilot repeatedly reminds drivers of their responsibility to remain attentive and prohibits the use of Autopilot when warnings are ignored, we’ve also introduced numerous updates to make our safeguards smarter, safer and more effective across every hardware platform we’ve deployed,” the company noted in a statement.

Tesla also noted that it has updated its system since the January 2018 accident, including adjusting the time intervals between hands-on warnings and the conditions under which the alerts are activated.

The report, however, prompted the Ralph Nader-founded Center for Auto Safety to call for a recall. “NTSB has done its job by thoroughly investigating this technology and this crash. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration [NHTSA] must also now do its job and recall these vehicles,” the group said in a statement.

The group said that it had highlighted for the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Tesla’s “deceptive use of the term AutoPilot” which the group said encourages the overreliance that the NTSB pointed out in its accident report. “AutoPilot has already resulted in avoidable deaths, injuries and crashes, yet NTSB’s previous recommendations to NHTSA were met with silence, and the FTC has yet to act,” it stated.

The group pointed out that in rolling out its “Automated Vehicle Safety (AV) 3.0” plan last year, NHTSA’s deputy administrator at the time, Heidi King, asserted that her agency would “not hesitate to act when safety defects exist,” including defects involving advanced technologies. “Now is the time for NHTSA’s new leadership to put those words into action and recall these defective vehicles,” the group stated.

“Put simply, a vehicle that enables a driver to not pay attention, or fall asleep, while accelerating into a parked fire truck is defective and dangerous. Any company that encourages such behavior should be held responsible, and any agency that fails to act bears equal responsibility for the next fatal incident.”

Last year’s accident occurred in the HOV lane of the I-405 freeway in Culver City, near Los Angeles. According to the accident report, the 47-year old male driver of the Tesla said he was drinking coffee and eating a bagel when he entered the HOV lane and activated the Autopilot system. He said he was “unsure whether he had a coffee mug or a bagel in his hand” at the time of impact, which occurred at 31 mph as his car was accelerating. No injuries resulted from the accident.

John Gallagher

Based in Washington, D.C., John specializes in regulation and legislation affecting all sectors of freight transportation. He has covered rail, trucking and maritime issues since 1993 for a variety of publications based in the U.S. and the U.K. John began business reporting in 1993 at Broadcasting & Cable Magazine. He graduated from Florida State University majoring in English and business.