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According to a recent StreetsBlog article, advocates are placing part of the blame on federal vehicle safety regulators for the death of two passengers in a crash of their semi-autonomous Tesla. This is because officials reportedly ignored calls from government safety experts to require automakers to include driver monitoring technology in “driverless” vehicles.
Police in the Houston suburb of Spring, Texas say the 69 and 59 year-old-men died when the misleadingly named “Full Self Driving Autopilot” feature on the 2019 Tesla Model S failed to navigate a curve and crashed into a tree at a high rate of speed. The crash sparked a battery fire that first responders were unable to extinguish for over four hours. As told CNN, the head of the police precinct that responded to the crash reported that “investigators are certain no one was in the driver’s seat at the time of the crash.”
This prompted safety advocates to wonder why the $66,000 luxury “autonomous” vehicle does almost nothing to ensure that drivers are prepared to take control of the car if the “autopilot” system fails. In fact, the torque sensor can be tricked by simply hanging a small weight from the steering wheel.
“Despite its “self-driving” branding, none of Tesla’s vehicles are capable of being safely operated on roadways without a human driver behind the wheel — a fact that the company itself has admitted to regulators in private correspondence,” wrote StreetsBlog.
Though the steering wheel sensor isn’t the only piece of safety equipment that comes standard on a Tesla, it is the only one that was likely activated at the time of the crash. All of the company’s cars have been outfitted with a cabin-facing camera equipped with artificial intelligence that senses when a driver abandons the wheel, uses his cell phone, or simply takes his eyes off the road for an extended period since 2017. However, said cameras weren’t put into use until a software update last year that allowed drivers to voluntarily opt into an unspecified safety-related beta program. Tesla’s system doesn’t alert its drivers to stop being reckless, nor does it automatically slow the car to a safe stop if customers repeatedly ignore automated warnings.
Commenting on this specific Tesla vehicle crash, one Twitter user wrote: “Honestly it’s insane that Tesla is allowed to experiment on the public by advertising a flawed driver assist feature as “Autopilot” and “autonomous driving” even after causing dozens of crashes, countless injuries, and a number of deaths.”
Earlier this year, the National Transportation Safety Board reminded regulators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that “autonomous vehicles must give alerts to capture the attention of a driver or operator and allow sufficient time for the person to respond and assume the dynamic driving task for any level of automation that may require human intervention.”
Tesla advocates, for their part, estimate that the vehicles are only involved in about 0.15 fatal crashes for every 1,000 vehicles sold. As StreetsBlog notes, if the numbers are accurate, that “would amount to a small fraction of other automakers’ per-vehicle death rate.” However, safe streets advocates have noted the company still isn’t doing enough to prevent traffic deaths.
In its plea for NHTSA to make driver monitoring systems mandatory on all new vehicles, the NTSB did not include non-autonomous cars. And though it did call for an end to distracted driving in its biannual Most Wanted List, it did not specifically name-check cabin-facing cameras or driver distraction alerts in the notice. Instead, the agency focuses on enforcement-based solutions, like texting laws.
The NTSB recently announced that it will investigate the Tesla crash, and make further recommendations to prevent other drivers of “driverless” cars from losing their lives.