Tesla Says Autopilot Was Engaged in Fatal Crash Under Investigation in California – Wall Street Journal


Tesla
Inc.


TSLA 3.24%

late Friday acknowledged its semiautonomous Autopilot system was engaged by the driver in the seconds before a fatal crash last week, raising more questions about the safety of self-driving technology on public roads.

Federal investigators this week began examining the March 23 crash of a Model X sport-utility vehicle that was traveling south on Highway 101, near Mountain View, Calif., before it struck a barrier, then was hit by two other vehicles and caught fire. The driver of the Model X was killed.

Tesla said its vehicle logs show the driver’s hands weren’t detected on the wheel for six seconds before the collision, and he took no action despite having five seconds and about 500 feet of unobstructed view of a concrete highway divider.

On Tuesday, the National Transportation Safety Board dispatched investigators to the scene, the second Tesla crash to attract the agency’s attention this year. The NTSB, better known for its investigations into airplane crashes, has been increasingly scrutinizing the emergence of automated-driving technologies.

A 2016 fatal crash involving Tesla’s Autopilot, first raised questions about the system’s abilities. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration concluded Tesla’s technology didn’t contain a safety defect while the NTSB decided that the company shared blame in the crash by failing to include enough safeguards. In that crash, a Tesla Model S struck a tractor trailer crossing a road and the company said the system didn’t see the white trailer against the bright sky.

The NTSB noted that Autopilot allowed a driver to ignore the company’s warnings and go long periods without his hands on the wheel. Officials also found Autopilot could be used on roads for which it wasn’t designed, and that a hands-on-the-wheel detection system was a poor substitute for measuring driver alertness.

The most recent Tesla crash occurred five days after an Uber Technologies Inc. self-driving test car struck and killed a pedestrian walking her bicycle outside of a crosswalk late at night in Tempe, Ariz. Uber suspended testing of its vehicles and federal transportation agencies are investigating what happened.

The Uber crash stirred lawmakers to call for further regulation of driverless technologies, and prompted

Toyota Motor
Corp.

and Nvidia Corp. to temporarily halt their own testing of self-driving vehicles out of caution.

The incidents threaten to damage the public’s perception of automation in vehicles as car makers and technology giants are spending billions of dollars in their pursuit to have robots controlling the wheel.

At the same time, many auto makers, including Tesla, are incorporating semiautonomous systems in their vehicles that allow drivers to take their hands off the wheel for periods of time.

Tesla has said Autopilot, which can handle certain driving tasks, isn’t a self-driving system and outlines to owners that the technology is designed to assist the driver who must remain in control at all times. But drivers have been know to grow overly confident in the system’s abilities.

The company has said it places a priority on safety and contends Autopilot enhances it. In its statement on Friday, Tesla said there is one fatality for every 320 million miles in vehicles equipped with Autopilot hardware in the U.S., compared with one automotive fatality every 86 million miles across all vehicles in the country.

The heightened scrutiny of Tesla’s technology comes as the company struggles to ramp up production of its latest mass-market sedan and as investors lose patience with the auto maker. This week, Moody’s Investors Service downgraded Tesla’s debt rating, citing an expected shortfall in the Model 3 production rate and a tight cash situation.

Tesla Chief Executive

Elon Musk

began selling vehicles in 2016 with hardware he said could one day be enabled to make the Tesla vehicle self-driving and promised to demonstrate a car capable of crossing the country in autonomous mode by the end of last year—a goal he missed amid turnover on his Autopilot team.

Meanwhile, Waymo, the self-driving unit of Google parent

Alphabet
Inc.,

appears poised to outpace Tesla. The tech unit has announced plans to begin deploying a commercial robot taxi service later this year in the Phoenix metro area as well as an order for as many as 20,000 Jaguar electric sport-utility vehicles to be part of its fleet beginning in 2020.

Write to Tim Higgins at Tim.Higgins@WSJ.com



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