U.S. regulator finds no evidence of defects after Tesla death probe

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By David Shepardson | WASHINGTON

WASHINGTON U.S. auto safety regulators said on
Thursday they found no evidence of defects in a Tesla Motors Inc car involved in the death of a man whose Model S
collided with a truck while he was using its Autopilot system.

The case has been closely watched as automakers race to
automate more driving tasks without exposing themselves to
increased liability risks.

Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk, on his Twitter account,
praised the decision by the National Highway Traffic Safety
Administration, which did not order a recall and put the
responsibility for the accident primarily on the driver, former
Navy SEAL Joshua Brown.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx told reporters on
Thursday that drivers have a duty to take seriously their
obligation to maintain control of a vehicle. He said automakers
also must explain the limits of semi-autonomous systems. In the
case of Tesla’s Autopilot, one limitation was that the system
could not detect a truck trailer that crossed the road in front
of the victim’s Tesla.

“The (auto) industry is going to have to be clear about what
the technology does and what it is does not do, and communicate
it clearly,” Foxx said.

Jack Landskroner, a lawyer for Brown’s family, said they
plan to evaluate all the information from government agencies
investigating the crash “before making any decisions or taking
any position on these matters.”

U.S. Senator Gary Peters, a Michigan Democrat, said in an
interview on Thursday “it is important regulators allow the
flexibility and freedom to innovate, but also prevent technology
that is not quite ready for prime time to get on the road.”

CONFUSION OVER WHO IS IN CONTROL

Legal experts said the agency’s decision does not mean
automakers would escape liability claims in cases where driver
assistance systems fail to prevent a crash.

“If it is known that drivers are misusing and being confused
by your self-driving system, then that in and of itself can be a
safety-related defect,” product liability lawyer Jason Stephens
said.

The crash occurred near Williston, Florida, last May. Brown
was operating his Model S in Autopilot mode just before he
collided with a truck and was killed.

The first fatality in a Tesla vehicle operating in Autopilot
mode, the incident raised questions about the safety of systems
that can perform driving tasks for long stretches with little or
no human intervention, but which cannot completely replace human
drivers.

NHTSA said in a report that Brown did not apply the brakes
and his last action was to set the cruise control at 74 miles
per hour (119 kph), less than two minutes before the crash.

The agency said Brown “should have been able to take some
action before the crash, like braking, steering or attempting to
avoid the vehicle. He took none of those actions.”

The agency said the truck should have been visible to Brown
for at least seven seconds before impact. Brown “took no
braking, steering or other actions to avoid the collision,” the
report said.

NHTSA also said in the report that drivers could be confused
about whether the system or the driver is in control of the
vehicle at certain times.

NHTSA issued numerous subpoenas and requests for information
to Tesla, and also sought information from Tesla supplier
Mobileye. The agency asked Tesla to describe how it monitored
misuse of the system and steps it took before introducing the
technology to prevent misuse, but nearly all of Tesla’s answers
were redacted by the agency.

Tesla said “the safety of our customers comes first, and we
appreciate the thoroughness of NHTSA’s report and its
conclusion.”

Musk, in a tweet, called the report “very positive.” He also cited NHTSA’s analysis of Tesla data which suggested
vehicle crash rates fell by 40 percent after the installation of
its Autosteer lane-keeping function.

Tesla in September unveiled improvements to Autopilot,
adding new limits on hands-off driving and other features that
its chief executive officer said likely would have prevented a
fatality.

The agency also said its decision to close the investigation
was not based on the software improvements announced in
September.

In October, Musk said all new Tesla models will come with an
$8,000 package for technology that allows the car to drive
itself. By the end of 2017 a Tesla should be able to drive in
full autonomous mode from Los Angeles to New York “without the
need for a single touch” on the wheel, Musk said.

Rival automakers have said they expect to be able to field
autonomous driving capability by around 2020.

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board is also
probing the crash. NHTSA said there have been no reported
incidents in the United States involving a Tesla in autopilot
mode that resulted in fatalities or injuries since a
Pennsylvania crash in July injured two people.

(Additional reporting by Erica Teichert in New York)



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