The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has released findings regarding a crash involving a Tesla Model S on Autopilot and a fire truck that was highly publicized when it happened last year.
It turns out that the driver was eating and drinking coffee during the moments leading to the crash.
In January 2018, a Tesla Model S crashed into a Culver City Fire Department fire truck, and the incident was highly publicized with speculation that the accident happened on Autopilot.
The NTSB launched an investigation, and they released their report today, more than a year later.
Here’s their summary of the accident:
At about 8:25 a.m. on Thursday, January 22, 2018, the Culver City Fire Department and the California Highway Patrol (CHP) responded to a traffic crash involving a passenger car and a motorcycle in the northbound lanes of Interstate 405 (The San Diego Freeway) near Washington Boulevard. In response to the crash, a CHP police vehicle was stopped on the left shoulder of the southbound lanes and a fire truck was stopped ahead of the police vehicle, canted left facing, in the left High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lane. The police vehicle and fire truck had their emergency lights activated. About 8:40 a.m., a 2014 Tesla S model sedan was traveling southbound in the HOV lane of I-405 and struck the rear of the stopped fire truck. When the crash occurred, the fire truck was unoccupied, and the driver of the sedan did not report any injuries. Statements from the driver and data downloaded from the Tesla after the crash indicate that the driver was utilizing driver assist technology when the crash occurred.
The NTSB was able to confirm that Autopilot was being used at the time of the crash.
They wrote on their report:
Data from the crash trip shows that for the majority of the time in which Autopilot [was] engaged, the driver did not have his hands on the wheel. In the final segment leading up to the crash, the driver had his hands off the wheel [for] 12 minutes, 57 seconds. A “place hands on the wheel” alert was given four times in the final segment. Immediately after each alert was given, the driver placed his hands on the wheel. The last alert was given about 9 minutes into the segment. About driver placed his hands on the wheel for the last time in the segment. When the crash occurred, the driver had his hands off the wheel.
However, this is an inaccurate description by the NTSB based on data from Tesla.
Tesla has no way to detect whether hands are on the steering wheel. All they can detect is whether the driver is applying torque on the wheel or not.
Therefore, they can never claim that “the driver did not have his hands on the wheel” as they do in this report.
Tesla did its own investigation and claims to have a witness who saw the driver being on his phone moments before the crash:
Staff from the Tesla corporate office obtained a written witness statement from a vehicle passenger who was traveling alongside the Tesla when the crash occurred. The witness stated that leading up to the crash, the Tesla Driver ‘appeared to be looking down at a cell phone or other device he was holding in this left hand.’ The witness further stated that the Tesla driver appeared to be touching the steering wheel with his right hand and was focused on the phone, not the roadway.
In an interview with the NTSB, the driver denies being on his phone at the time of the crash.
However, he does admit to having been drinking coffee and eating a bagel while driving on Autopilot leading up to the crash:
While he drove, he rested his hand on his knee while he touched the bottom of the steering wheel. As he drove, he had a bagel and a cup of coffee next to him. As he reached the stopped fire truck, the large vehicle ahead changed lanes. Although the driver stated that he was looking forward, he was unable to see the fire truck in time enough to avoid the crash. The driver states that he was not using his phone when the crash occurred. However, because after the crash, his coffee spilled and his bagel was smashed, the driver is not sure if his coffee or bagel was in his hand when the crash occurred.
The NTSB didn’t come to any specific conclusion about the cause of the accident.
Here’s the full report:
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I don’t like all the talk about the hands on the steering wheel and only detecting them for a fraction of the trip. Tesla owners know very well that even if Tesla doesn’t detect hands on the wheel, they may very well be on it.
It’s therefore not a great metric to determine whether they are paying attention.
However, the stuff about eating a bagel while driving and apparently the witness that Tesla found are clearer indications that there might have been a lack of attention.
When driving on Autopilot, it’s important to always pay attention and be ready to take control at all times.
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