NTSB: all the faults of Tesla's autonomous driving

There National Transportation Safety Board has raised the yellow card to Tesla and of Apple. The report is a consequence of the analysis of the notorious accident of 23 March 2018, when an engineer from the Cupertino group (video game developer) died of the injuries sustained during an accident with his Model X .

The accident became the casus belli which encouraged an in-depth study of the autopilot systems in use, especially in a moment as fundamental as this for the future of the autonomous driving .

The accident

According to what emerged, the accident would have occurred at a speed of 71 miles per hour and the case has been reconstructed by the authorities thanks to the logs made available both by Apple (as regards the employee's smartphone, an iPhone) and by Tesla (as regards the latest actions taken on the car before the accident).

In the six seconds before the impact, the pilot – Walter Huang – he would have had his hands detached from the wheel. Although it cannot be clear what exactly he was doing, what is known is that the smartphone was playing a video game. In all probability, in short, the pilot was distracted by the video game and was therefore not in a position of control and with his eyes on the roadway.

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No braking or steering movement was reported before the impact. The reasons for the car's behavior are unknown (which did not follow the line, nor did it start automatic braking), but a series of contributing factors could have led to the difficult interpretation of the context and the absence of elements that would encourage the algorithm to react: the sun in front of the cameras, discolored lines on the pavement and other factors may have caused the abnormal behavior and all that ensued.

The weaknesses of the system are known, but also in the absence of forcings the Autopilot mechanism has lost efficacy in the face of a simple combination of natural elements frequently found during travel.

The prosecution

Robert L. Sumwalt, supervisor of the NTSB, therefore pointed the finger at both Tesla and Apple.

Against the house of Elon Musk, the charge is of not having responded to the recommendations made in 2017 : after more than 800 days (when the limit was 90), the group would be seriously lagging behind the adoption of the provisions launched to claim that, in the absence of a true complete and total autonomous driving, the driver is forced to keep the attention on the road without fully relying on sensors and autopilot algorithms with automation level 2. As an aggravating circumstance, Sumwalt points out that out of 5 car manufacturers contacted, only one would never have responded to the letter: Tesla, later the protagonist of the accident.

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Apple is reproached instead forabsence of a specific policy for Personal Electronic Devices (PEDs) while driving: the speaker explains that he is a strong supporter of this type of protocols and that he has noticed excessive laxity by the main leading groups in the world of technology.

Walter Huang, who died of the accident, was expected to have behaved differently while driving. But the technologies to which he was entrusting attention in those moments ought in some way towarn him of the ongoing danger. The NTSB team is collecting a lot of material on accidents that occurred on vehicles with partial autonomous driving and soon the Huang case will also be part of the archive: it is this material to work on in order to be able to reach autonomous driving not only with the necessary technologies, but also with the fundamental regulatory requirements to protect both innovation and the safety of people.

The appeal to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is therefore put in black and white: before autonomous driving can proceed to a next step, more insights will be needed.

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