Fatal Tesla Autopilot Crash Opens Door For Stringent NTSB Oversight Of Autonomous Vehicles

Following the first fatal accident involving Tesla's autonomous vehicle technology, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is sending a team of five investigators to Florida next week to investigate the crash and the circumstances that allowed the accident to occur. That's in addition to a probe by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTS).

Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety advocacy group in Washington, told Bloomberg that NTSB's probe is "very significant," adding that "the NTSB only investigates crashes with broader implications." Indeed, the NTSB has been skeptical of autonomous vehicles and has warned of the technology's downsides while investigating prior (albeit non-fatal) incidents.

2015 Tesla Model S

In this instance, a 40-year-old from Ohio had engaged the Autopilot mode in his 2015 Tesla Model S. Unfortunately, both the car's sensors and the driver failed to detect that a tractor trailer initially traveling the opposite direction along a divided highway was making a left turn perpendicularly in front of the Model S. The white side of the 18-wheeler blended in with a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied. As a result, the windshield of the Model S struck the underside of the 18-wheelr as it continued to pass under the trailer.

"Autopilot is getting better all the time, but it is not perfect and still requires the driver to remain alert," Tesla said of the incident. "Nonetheless, when used in conjunction with driver oversight, the data is unequivocal that Autopilot reduces driver workload and results in a statistically significant improvement in safety when compared to purely manual driving."

This is the first fatal crash involving Tesla's Autopilot mode in more than 130 million miles of driving. By comparison, a fatality occurs every 94 million miles in the U.S. and every 60 million miles worldwide. Nevertheless, the NTSB is concerned that drivers are becoming complacent with autonomous vehicle technology. According to Ditlow, the NTSB rarely investigates highway accidents.

"They're not looking at just this crash," Ditlow said. "They're looking at the broader aspects. Are these driverless vehicles safe? Are there enough regulations in place to ensure their safety? And one thing in this crash I'm certain they're going to look at is using the American public as test drivers for beta systems in vehicles. That is simply unheard of in auto safety."

Tesla's Autopilot software has been around since October 2014. The automaker said that vehicle onwers must acknowledge that its self-driving technology is new and "still in a public beta phase" before it can be switched on.