Last Thursday was another reminder that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is struggling to define what automation means for the future of the auto industry.
According to Reuters, the agency officially closed its investigation into the fatal crash that killed Joshua Brown, owner of a Tesla Model S, who set his car on autopilot as he was cruising on a highway west of Williston, Florida. The car ended up colliding with a tractor-trailer that was crossing an uncontrolled intersection.
Initial reports in May showed that the Tesla had failed to distinguish between the color of the white trailer and a bright-colored sky, therefore it did not slow its speed. Thickening the plot was the fact that Brown, 40, was reportedly watching a movie on a portable DVD player at the time of the crash.
When the NHTSA announced that it was planning to investigate further, people began to wonder if this was the start of something much more profound; part of the investigation was to determine whether Tesla’s semi-automation system — one of the few sanctioned systems being used on the road today — was defective, and whether a recall was necessary.
But after six months, the NHTSA has come to the conclusion that nothing about automation is conclusive. The final evaluation, released last week, determined that the Tesla was working in accordance with its specifications and that the company was not liable for any technical fiascos; no recalls were issued as a result.
“The Autopilot system,” as it says in the NHTSA report, “is an Advanced Driver Assistance System (ADAS) that requires the continual and full attention of the driver to monitor the traffic environment and be prepared to take action to avoid crashes.”
More from the NHTSA: “Although perhaps not as specific as it could be, Tesla has provided information about system limitations in the owner’s manuals, user interface and associated warnings/alerts, as well as a driver monitoring system that is intended to aid the driver in remaining engaged in the driving task at all times.”
While it’s hard to pin this particular crash on the Tesla automation system alone, it’s also hard to ignore that the NHTSA called out Tesla for not being “as specific as it could be …” Question is: In what respect? These are the specifics that are going to matter in the future, and it probably behooves the agency to elaborate. Looks like we’ll have to wait a little longer.
“A safety-related defect trend has not been identified at this time and further examination of this issue does not appear to be warranted,” says the concluding paragraph of the NHTSA’s investigative report. ”Accordingly, this investigation is closed. The closing of this investigation does not constitute a finding by NHTSA that no safety-related defect exists. The agency will monitor the issue and reserves the right to take future action if warranted by the circumstances.”
Given the shaky legal landscape surrounding autonomous vehicles, it’s time for the agency to go on heightened alert.