A Tesla vehicle involved in a deadly wreck in March rapidly accelerated prior to barreling into a street barrier, according to a report Thursday from federal investigators.
The National Transportation Safety Board report could raise alarms about the safety and risk associated with the functionality of Tesla’s autopilot system. NTSB initially wanted to determine why the Model X SUV burst into flames shortly after crashing in Mountain View, Calif.
The vehicle was in autopilot mode and the driver’s hands were not on the wheel at the time of the crash, nor did the 38-year-old man brake or take any evasive steering action, the report noted. The vehicle’s speed increased from 62 to 70.8 mph, data from the Tesla’s attenuator shows.
NTSB’s report also investigated whether the barrier, which is meant to work as a type of shock absorber, could have played a role in the crash’s severity. Photos showed extensive damage to the SUV, which was charred and appeared to have had its front end ripped off. The driver was pulled from the wreckage before the vehicle caught fire, but later died at a hospital.
The vehicle’s attenuator, a device overseen by the California Department of Transportation, was damaged in a previous incident, according to a statement in March from NTSB spokesman Christopher O’Neil. “It had not been reset,” O’Neil said, adding that officials were “looking at the damaged attenuator and looking at an undamaged one and looking at if it had an effect.”
Tesla has dealt with the fallout from similar incidents in the past. A man was killed in 2016 after his Model S slammed into a truck on the highway. An NTSB report later found he was using the autopilot feature but had ignored several audio warnings to place his hands on the steering wheel.
Engineers caution that it might not be possible for humans to cede partial control to a Tesla’s autopilot feature while also staying alert behind the wheel. (RELATED: Another Man Dies In Tesla Wreck, Firefighters Feared Electrocution)
“The expectation of Tesla is that the driver is alert and vigilant, ready to take over at a moment’s notice,” Ryan Eustice, a professor of engineering at the University of Michigan, told reporters in 2017. Drivers become bored and place too much trust in auto-driving features, he added. (RELATED: Driver Killed In Tesla Accident Ignored Automated Warnings To Pay Attention)
Bryant Walker Smith, a professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law, who devoted his career to studying semi-autonomous technology like Tesla uses, echoed Eustice’s sentiments, telling reporters that Tesla owners will likely have to decide between safety and convenience.
Tesla refused to discuss aspects of the finished NTSB report with The Daily Caller News Foundation, but a company spokeswoman did refer TheDCNF to a blog post on Tesla’s website, which gives details about the March 2017 wreck but does not address the report’s key finding.
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