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Federal safety official slams Tesla, regulators for misuse of its Autopilot tech

Russ Mitchell, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

The chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board slammed Tesla and unnamed "government regulators" for jeopardizing traffic safety by not taking measures to prevent "foreseeable abuse" of Tesla's Autopilot driver-assist feature.

Robert Sumwalt, chairman of the NTSB, led off a board meeting Tuesday focused on a March 2019 fatal crash of a Tesla Model X that killed the driver, Walter Huang. Huang had Autopilot engaged and crashed into a safety barrier while playing a video game on his Apple smartphone, Sumwalt said.

"Government regulators have provided scant oversight" of Autopilot and self-drive systems from other manufacturers, Sumwalt said. He apparently was referring to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA, which, unlike the NTSB, has enforcement power and can recall defective cars with defective automotive technology.

In 2017, the NTSB recommended that automakers design driver-assist systems to prevent human driver inattention and misuse. Automakers including Volkswagen, Nissan and BMW reported on their attempts to meet the recommendations, but Tesla never got back to the NTSB. "Sadly, one manufacturer has ignored us, and that manufacturer is Tesla," Sumwalt said Tuesday. "We've heard nothing, we're still waiting."

Tesla couldn't be reached for comment.

Sumwalt also criticized drivers who use Autopilot as if it were a self-driving system. "You cannot buy a self-driving car today," he said. "You don't own a self-driving car so don't pretend you do." He warned drivers not to sleep, read, text, eat or otherwise do anything to take away attention from the task of driving while using a driver-assist system.

 

Families of Huang were in the audience at the Washington, D.C., meeting. Sumwalt addressed them directly: "Our goal is to learn form what happened so others don't have to go through what you're going through."

The safety board picks crashes to investigate "that can advance our knowledge of safety issues." It's highly selective. There are millions of highway crashes in the U.S. each year. The board is currently investigating 17 crashes, three involving Tesla's Autopilot technology.

The NHTSA, an arm of the federal Department of Transportation, is probing at least 13 Autopilot-related crashes.

Autopilot is an automated driver-assist feature sold as part of what Tesla calls a "Full Self Driving Capability" package for $7,000 that can speed up, brake and change lanes automatically, although the driver is supposed to pay attention.

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