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NTSB cites driver inattention, Tesla Autopilot design in 2018 crash

The agency argues that detecting hands on a steering wheel is a poor gauge of driver engagement.

The National Transportation Safety Board has issued a report (PDF) critical of Tesla's Autopilot design as a contributing factor in a 2018 non-fatal accident.

In stating a probable cause, the agency starts by citing the driver's lack of response to a stationary fire truck that was in his travel lane. He did not attempt to stop or maneuver around the truck "due to inattention and overreliance" on the Autopilot system.

The report also criticizes the Autopilot design, "which permitted the driver to disengage from the driving task."

A previous investigation into a fatal Florida accident led the NTSB to issue a list of recommendations, calling on automakers to develop technology that can "more effectively sense the driver's level of engagement" and alert the driver when engagement is lacking while automated control systems are active.

"Because driving is an inherently visual task and a driver might touch the steering wheel without assessing the roadway, traffic conditions, or vehicle performance, monitoring steering wheel torque provides a poor surrogate means of determining a driver's degree of engagement with the driving task," the NTSB said, referring to the previous investigation.

The agency sent letters detailing the recommendations to all automakers with Level 2 automation systems including Audi, BMW, Nissan, Mercedes-Benz, Tesla, Volkswagen Group and Volvo. All except for Tesla responded to the outreach and explained details of their current technology and efforts to reduce misuse.

To be clear, the NTSB has not declared Autopilot to be defective in any way. Monitoring driver engagement via steering-wheel torque is perfectly legal, though the NTSB apparently believes automakers should voluntarily move toward more effective technologies to prevent drivers from using semi-automated systems without paying attention to the road.

The safety agency is also investigating two separate Autopilot crashes including one in Mountain View, California, and another in Delray Beach, Florida.

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