A US preliminary report into a fatal Tesla crash in March involving its Autopilot self-driving technology has found that the tech was engaged for 10 seconds before the crash.
The driver had apparently removed his hands from the wheel about 8 seconds before the crash, according to the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which is carrying out the investigation.
The roof of the Tesla Model X was sheared off and its 50-year-old driver was killed when the vehicle drove under the trailer of a semi truck that was crossing its path in March 2019.
Neither Autopilot nor the driver took evasive action, the NTSB said.
The driver was previously named as Jeremy Beren Banner, 50, with the incident having taken place on a highway in Delray Beach, Florida.
Tesla said it recommends users to be prepared to take over from Autopilot at all times.
“Tesla drivers have logged more than one billion miles with Autopilot engaged,” the company said.
The March incident has similarities to a May 2016 crash in which a Model S also drove under the trailer of a semi truck crossing its path.
In the 2016 case, the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found that Autopilot had failed to detect the white trailer against a bright sky.
But it concluded that the driver was not paying attention to the road and exonerated Tesla.
Even so, the accidents raise questions about how Autopilot and, by extension, other self-driving technologies, deal with unexpected or rare driving conditions.
Such systems must be trained to deal with specific situations or they may respond in inappropriate ways.
For instance, an anonymous Twitter user using the handle greentheonly in March posted data he said was from a hacked Tesla Model X.
The data showed Autopilot detecting a white semi truck crossing the vehicle’s path, but plotting a course beneath the vehicle.
“This trailer here is totally taken as an overhead structure,” the user wrote.
Greentheone told The Verge that he “did not try to approach the trailer and see if any of the inputs would change (but I bet not)”.
Tesla recently updated investors with the technical progress of Autopilot, with chief executive Elon Musk saying the technology’s rapid advance could see fleets of fully self-driving taxis on the roads a year from now.
The company published a video showing Autopilot completing a journey without help from its driver.
But a Forrester study based on data from engineers at top players in the autonomous car business found that truly self-driving cars were likely to be more than ten years away.
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