Weekly Brief: Tesla Autopilot cleared of causing fatal crash

While many thought the EV carmaker would get a public rebuke for its autonomous function, NHTSA gave it a ringing endorsement. Andrew Tolve reports.

After a nine-month investigation into whether Tesla’s Autopilot was to blame for a fatal car crash in Florida last year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) delivered its verdict last week: Not Guilty.

It determined that the technology performed appropriately and that the driver, 40-year-old Joshua Brown, was at fault when his car T-boned a semi-truck on a Florida highway in May 2016. The decision noted that Autopilot is a Level 2 self-driving system and, therefore, requires the driver to always monitor the system and be at the ready to intervene – a stipulation that Brown failed to perform, the administration says. “A safety-related defect trend has not been identified at this time and further examination of this issue does not appear to be warranted,” the administration stated in its decision.

The ruling means that Tesla will not have to issue a widespread recall on any car with the Autopilot function and can continue to integrate the technology into its new vehicles unabated. More broadly, it gives the auto industry the green light to pursue semi-autonomous and autonomous technology without the concern of culpability anytime an accident occurs with self-driving tech on-board. The NHTSA’s research during the investigation found that Tesla cars with auto steering technology on board experienced 40% fewer crashes than their Tesla brethren with no advanced driver assistance systems present.

The ruling was not without its controversy. Safety advocacy group Consumer Watchdog pointed out that the decision came just hours before the Obama Administration was coming to a close and accused the NHTSA’s administrator Mark Rosekind and US Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx of acting in their own self-interest, alleging that the ruling could open the way for them now to land high-paying jobs “in the industry they were supposed to be regulating,” said John Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s privacy project director.

Teslaisn’t waiting around for any second opinions. Shortly after the ruling was released, the carmaker pushed out an over-the-air update with an enhanced Autopilot system to all of its vehicles manufactured since October 2016. The update enables Tesla Model S and X vehicles to better navigate tortuous roads and to move around slower traffic thanks to an automatic lane change feature. The Smart Summon feature now also works on driveways that curve and parking lots that include turns.

A new patent was awarded this week that may help self-driving cars deal with reversible lanes and it was issued to a surprising company: Amazon. Up to this point, Amazon hasn’t given any intention that it is at work on self-driving cars or trucks. Drones that can drop Amazon packages down from the sky have been of more pressing interest. Yet the Amazon patent would suggest that the e-commerce giant may soon be joining the ranks of Google,Uber, Audi and others. The patent envisions a roadway system that can communicate with self-driving cars so that they can know in advance which direction reversible lanes are moving at a given time.

Mercedes-Benzis launching a new e-payment platform called “Mercedes pay.” Rather than invest the time and money to build the technology from the ground up, Daimler announced last week that it had acquired the electronic payment services provider PayCash Europe SA, whose technology will be relaunched under the new brand name in the near future. Mercedes pay will be integrated into the car-sharing platform car2go and the mytaxi taxi app, among other mobility services.

Russia allowed BMW to resume shipping cars to Russia but only on the grounds that BMW will integrate ERA-GLONASS eCallsystems into all BMW cars sold in Russia starting in 2019. The saga marks just the latest chapter in what has been a very rocky rollout of ERA-GLONASS eCall. The system went into effect January 1, 2017 but carmakers continue to consider the system infeasible and few have integrated solutions as of yet into their vehicles. The government is thus blocking some shipments while permitting others.

Uberhas agreed to pay $20M (£16.15M) to Uber drivers for allegedly exaggerating their income earning potential. The settlement is a victory for the US Federal Trade Commission, which claimed that Uber was falsely advertising both wages that drivers would make and the amount of money they would have to pay to finance a car between 2013 and 2015. Uber says that it’s happy to have the issue resolved and that it still loves its drivers. Meanwhile, it continues to pursue self-driving tech to eliminate them.

Finally, the USDOT established 10 designated proving grounds in the US for testing self-driving cars. The idea is to have set places where carmakers and tech companies can go to test their solutions, always under the same parameters, with each site openly sharing best practices with the others. Here are the 10 sites:

1.      City of Pittsburgh and the Thomas D. Larson Pennsylvania Transportation Institute

2.      Texas AV Proving Grounds Partnership

3.      US Army Aberdeen Test Centre

4.      American Centre for Mobility (ACM) at Willow Run

5.      Contra Costa Transportation Authority (CCTA) & GoMentum Station

6.      San Diego Association of Governments

7.      Iowa City Area Development Group

8.      University of Wisconsin-Madison

9.      Central Florida Automated Vehicle Partners

10.  North Carolina Turnpike Authority

The Weekly Brief is a round-up of the week’s top telematics news, combining TU-Automotive analysis with information from industry sources.


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