back to article Deadly Tesla smash probe: No recall needed, says Uncle Sam

The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration investigation into a fatal Tesla crash last year has determined that the car manufacturer should face no further action and has improved safety considerably. The investigation was launched after Joshua Brown, a 40-year-old ex-Navy SEAL, slammed into the side of a tractor …

  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Off with their heads!

  2. tfewster Silver badge

    Phew, got away with it...

    I was expecting Tesla to be censured and banned from using the "Autopilot" name as it could be misleading - but, as it turns out, not even that?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Phew, got away with it...

      Yup, some folks believe that Tesla is getting away with murder...

      1. moiety

        Re: Phew, got away with it...

        Dunno about murder, but calling it an 'autopilot' is hyperbole at best and bloody dangerous when you're talking about the public at large; some of whom you KNOW are going to take it literally.

        Still, Tesla drivers have the heads-up about the facts now.

        1. MyffyW Silver badge

          Re: Phew, got away with it...

          Autopilot isn't a bad description - Tesla's device sort of does what an aircraft autopilot does, and an aircraft still requires a flesh and blood pilot.

          Now if they'd called it a Jonny-cab....

          1. DropBear Silver badge

            Re: Phew, got away with it...

            "Autopilot isn't a bad description"

            Except it kinda is. The actual function might be similar ("keep current course") but the job requirements themselves are very different on a car and on an airplane. What suffices on a plane is not enough to do the same thing on a car - simply maintaining course is perfectly sufficient to keep a plane flying in the correct corridor out of trouble as there's nothing it can possibly hit that way; it's easy to see how that doesn't even begin to describe what's needed to stay out of trouble using autopilot alone in a car on a road.

            Also, I assure you that if flight corridors were 1m larger than the wingspan of a plane - kinda like how highway lanes currently are for a car - all flight autopilots not based on a surveyor-precision GPS would fail left right and center too like nobody's business.

            1. The IT Ghost

              Re: Phew, got away with it...

              One might point out that, on the ground, there are lines the autopilot could pick up on a camera and it would be calibrated so if the centerline (sorry, centreline) is following this certain path along the display, the car is centered in the lane. Easy, line following is robotics 101. If someone invented a way to place such lines at 35000 feet, through cloud cover, and prevented either gravity or wind from affecting them a camera equipped airplane autopilot with the same programming as a ground-based one would be able to follow the lines to the same tolerances as their grounded cousins, even with might tighter airways. The ground based "autopilot" is cheating.

              1. Mark 85 Silver badge

                Re: Phew, got away with it...

                I think it was the F111 that had a "centerline" (or "centerline") on the HUD for the pilot to follow in terrain-following mode. The problem was that the pilots depended on it too much and several were killed when got into a car and drove... and followed the centerline on the road. This could be an urban myth but it was a very common one back in the day.

                1. The IT Ghost

                  Re: Phew, got away with it...

                  Smacks of urban myth to me, Mark 85. Sounds like a "<insert service branch> pilots are so dumb that...." joke. All pilots drive cars much more than they fly airplanes, especially when you only count the time when they fly according to ground references, yet you don't see reports where the pilot wrecked because was trying to stay "in my lane" and traveling down the one side of the runway. People adapt better than that.

      2. Bill B
        Unhappy

        Re: Phew, got away with murder

        I appreciate that AC is joking here (because no sane person would think that Tesla was engaged in a deliberate attempt to kill someone) but it does perpetuate the Luddite belief that this technology should not be in use, in spite of the fact that it is reducing accidents in this class of car.

  3. Dave Harvey

    Persuit of perfection vs. incremental improvement

    The hysteria in the media over this death is unfortunately (IMHO) typical of the reaction to most "changes" in the world of technology. However bad/dangerous/unreliable any current system (normally "manual" in some way) might be, critics of any new technological replacement show "magical thinking" and expect it to be perfect, rather than merely being significantly better than its predecessor, which should be good enough for most cases.

    If driver assistance (whatever the name) can reliably be shown to reduce accidents (making sure that we're comparing like with like - e.g. motorway with motorway rather than motorway with assist vs. country roads without), should we really be looking for a scapegoat when it turns out not to be 100% perfect? Of course - we must make sure that we learn from every mistake, but don't let lawyers cause the baby to be thrown out with the bath water.

    1. JLV Silver badge

      Re: Persuit of perfection vs. incremental improvement

      lawyers...

      I believe one big risk with autodrive tech is when a manufacturer is found guilty of buggy software.

      Let's take this and say "yes, it was actually Tesla's fault". Now, if it had been a human's fault (it seems to have been the truck driver's IIRC) then liability is well known in most countries and covered by standard auto insurance. So, yes, there is a faulty party and, yes, we know how to cap damages for loss of life or health. And, yes, insurance companies exist to ensure coverage and payouts. But, there is no way for someone to claim $50 million for death of a spouse, even if the guilty driver is a billionaire.

      Contrast this with could happen if say, Tesla, was found negligent. What's to keep the ambulance chasing industry from a $50M wrongful death lawsuit, on the sole basis that the carmaker has deep pockets? How would the law say "yes, this was their fault, but look, also -40% accidents overall"? Toyota got dinged on Prius runaway brake defects and this is in a much more mature branch of car manufacturing. The payouts were way above the range of standard car accident payouts.

      Plus, if you drive, you are responsible for insuring your driving capability. If it's an auto-drive, does your insurance cover the autopilot fail? Does Tesla do it? If so, what's their incentive, and their risk exposure?

      IMHO, once the technology is mature enough*, we should either put autopilots into general insurance regime. Or we should cap payouts - like you see in the aircraft and airline industry - and investigate each failure thoroughly, again like plane crashes. What we should not do is automatically open up carmakers to outlandish claims, unless their error is due to negligence rather than just an error. Otherwise, we have the risk that the early entrants get burned too much to persevere in something that should eventually make our driving much safer in aggregate. Face it, these things won't be perfect to start with.

      * I am still not convinced Tesla's autopilot shouldn't be a bit more regulated than it has been. It seems to be getting the light end of regulation, compared to fully autonomous systems like Google's.

      1. Dave Harvey

        Re: Persuit of perfection vs. incremental improvement

        "lawyers..."

        Especially "American, ambulance-chasing lawyers".....

        It was said a long time ago that when America sneezes, the UK catches a cold - unfortunately it's true in this case, we have caught "lawyeritis", and now have to suffer our own home-grown sleaze-bags.

        But yes, you've hit the nail on the head.

        1. moiety

          Re: Persuit of perfection vs. incremental improvement

          But then if you cap death payments -for example- you're going to get situations like it being cheaper to let people die rather than do a recall. I don't think there's a right answer.

          1. JLV Silver badge

            Re: Persuit of perfection vs. incremental improvement

            No, put that under negligence in my book. And uncap payouts. I am talking honest mistakes, not flagged and known about but ignored. I realize that I used 'negligent' in different meanings above. I meant if Tesla had been at fault, not (willfully) negligent, my bad.

            No one wants the Pinto recall $ vs death calculations back.

            Put it this way: the Brasil - Paris AF 477 killed 228 people due to a combination of instrument failure and inadequate pilot training. Both Airbus and Air France were at fault, but not by negligence. Did you see a massive sueball to both companies, like 5M$/person? No, because they do have caps. Instead you saw a costly investigation, lessons were learned and corrections were made. Aviation's caps, but also obsessive trend to constant safety improvements is what I believe we should emulate.

            Pinto recall fail? That should be hard jail time.

            1. DropBear Silver badge

              Re: Persuit of perfection vs. incremental improvement

              I actually agree with your intent in principle - but if only willful negligence presents a danger to companies, what would stop them from adopting a deliberately ignorant "see no evil, hear no evil" attitude, where no question is asked too thoroughly out of fear of an inconvenient answer going on record as a result?

            2. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Re: Persuit of perfection vs. incremental improvement

              Both Airbus and Air France were at fault, but not by negligence.

              Air France were negligent, because their crew training and supervision was totally inadequate. That the systems went wrong was unfortunate, but the systems handed control back to the aircrew, who were there mainly for that purpose.

              I really can't see how you can hold Air France as "not negligent" when their highly paid crew flew a completely airworthy aircraft into the sea.

            3. Peter2 Silver badge

              Re: Persuit of perfection vs. incremental improvement

              "It was said a long time ago that when America sneezes, the UK catches a cold - unfortunately it's true in this case, we have caught "lawyeritis", and now have to suffer our own home-grown sleaze-bags."

              The UK really, really doesn't have "lawyeritis". There have been studies about this, and the case of the person being burnt with hot coffee which is the leading case about it in the UK.

              That particular case had a set of coffee bought from McDonalds drive through in one of those paperboard cups. The Coffee in question was ~200 degrees Celsius and melted the glue holding the cup together, dropping that coffee over the driver causing severe burns to 16% of the persons body and requiring hospitalisation and plastic surgery. The doctors weren't sure she's survive. (5% burns can be fatal)

              McDonalds got fined because they knew there was a problem from frequent reports, but hadn't addressed it.

              In general frivolous cases do not exist in the UK and there have been several reports on the legal system desperately trying to find some justification for the view that we might have a problem, but eventually concluding that we don't actually have much of a problem with what your calling "lawyeritis" and even the headline grabbing cases on the subject often substantially and materially misrepresent the facts.

              1. Dave Harvey

                Re: Persuit of perfection vs. incremental improvement

                Please, enlighten us as to how it's possible to have liquid water at 200 degree Celsius at atmospheric pressure?

                If we don't have laweritis, then who's behind the spam texts/phone calls I get most weeks encouraging me to claim for non-existent car accidents? Really - there's a LOT more to the problem than one infamous and disputed American law-suit!

                1. Voyna i Mor Silver badge

                  Re: Persuit of perfection vs. incremental improvement

                  Please, enlighten us as to how it's possible to have liquid water at 200 degree Celsius at atmospheric pressure?

                  The well known principle of de minimis non curat lex - the law ignores small things (like the difference between Celsius and Fahrenheit).

          2. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Persuit of perfection vs. incremental improvement

            "if you cap death payments -for example- you're going to get situations like it being cheaper to let people die rather than do a recall"

            1. That will always be true. All that changes is the point at which that happens.

            2. Why do you think that's a bad thing? Planners usually value a human life at about half a million pounds. You don't spend hundreds of millions of pounds to save a single life; it would be better to spend the money on saving hundreds of lives, which you could easily do in many different ways, for example by improving health care.

        2. Voyna i Mor Silver badge

          Re: Persuit of perfection vs. incremental improvement

          "we have caught "lawyeritis", and now have to suffer our own home-grown sleaze-bags."

          Many years ago my father told me not to ask to be articled to his firm because in future solicitors would either be bureaucrats or ambulance chasers and I would be very bored.

          Engineering and IT have certainly provided an interesting career but at a considerable financial hit. The law is one of the occupations which seems to award itself pay rises because it can. Fortunately it looks as if the British Government is going to have to offer car makers plenty of support for electric vehicles and self driving cars to keep them in the UK, so on this occasion the lawyers could lose.

  4. danR2

    Face it: Humans are lousy drivers

    NTSB Transportation Assessment 2025

    A year-long investigation into all-causes accident mishaps concludes that human error is the most frequent factor in all forms of transportation mishaps, including walking. Their report has been submitted to Congress, and Majority leader Mr. 1001011001 is expected to start debate on the morning of 01001110...

    1. Youngone Silver badge

      Re: Face it: Humans are lousy drivers

      You joke, but PJ O'Rourke wrote a great piece about the Transport Safety people having to investigate Volvos having sudden acceleration problems, and how pressure was put on them to find a fault with the cars.

      As you might have guessed, it was always the driver stamping on the gas, not the brake.

      They had to be diplomatic about it, but the finding of the report was along the lines of:

      People are prone to making mistakes.

      1. Chemical Bob

        Re: Face it: Humans are lousy drivers

        I thought it was Audis in the 1980's.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          I thought it was Audis in the 1980's.

          Yep. And the drivers would say, "The harder I pressed on the brake, the faster it went! I had it pressed to the floor!" Perhaps the most telling thing I read was that the average age of the drivers was over 60 (that was for the Toyota drivers).

      2. S4qFBxkFFg

        Re: Face it: Humans are lousy drivers

        I don't want to take bad drivers off the hook, but bad design contributes significantly to accidents of that type.

        Maybe we're stuck with it because people think it's customary, but just think about for a minute:

        To go faster, press this pedal with your foot.

        To go slower, press this other pedal with your foot.

        See the problem? Two control functions that you really don't want to confuse are made to look almost as similar as it's possible to make them, and both are readily accessible to the same limb.

        At least with motorbikes the throttle/brake are separate control styles (twist grip and brake levers, although unfortunately still both hand-operated).

        In aircraft, brakes are incorporated into the rudder pedals, while the throttle is hand operated. I don't have the stats, but I expect it's extremely uncommon for pilots to throttle up when they meant to brake.

        Safety is only achieved through a combination of good training, good practice, good design, good manufacture, good maintenance, etc. The idea is that a single failure (e.g. pressing the wrong pedal) should, if possible, be prevented from causing an accident by design (e.g. making pedals ONLY for acceleration, or ONLY for braking).

        1. Iain Gilbert

          Re: Face it: Humans are lousy drivers

          The one good thing about the two pedals setup is it's difficult the brake and accelerate at the same time, although not impossible.

          My main issue is with overly large brake pedals on autos - going for the clutch and brake results in overly harsh braking. Not the end of the world but annoying.

          The question is - how many deaths would result from the change in controls (presuming you could actually switch over and not have to phase it in) versus how many you'd save.

        2. Voyna i Mor Silver badge

          Re: Face it: Humans are lousy drivers

          "Maybe we're stuck with it because people think it's customary, but just think about for a minute:"

          Boats have a lever which you push forwards for forwards and backwards for back. To brake, just move the lever in the opposite direction until the desired speed is achieved, and resume normal progress.

          I believe the Model T Ford's band transmission could do the same trick in a crude way.

          Motorcycle controls are good because the action of braking is very different from the action of accelerating - twist to go, clench to stop. I haven't ridden a bike in 30 years but the muscle memory is still there - if I hold a twistgrip I know the actions are instinctive.

          However, the probability of designing a new UI for cars is unlikely, especially with the real chance that it will only be necessary for a couple of decades.

        3. Chemical Bob

          Re: Face it: Humans are lousy drivers

          Actually, not bad design - having the brake and gas pedals being at the same level and similar size facilitates heel-and-toe driving so one can brake and shift at the same time.

          1. Mark 85 Silver badge

            Re: Face it: Humans are lousy drivers

            having the brake and gas pedals being at the same level and similar size facilitates heel-and-toe driving so one can brake and shift at the same time.

            That works for those of us who have done it and practiced it, usually in a racing environment. Much like power sliding around a curve... Most of the population can't do it.

            1. Chemical Bob

              Re: Face it: Humans are lousy drivers

              "Most of the population can't do it."

              Agreed. OTOH, we're talking about *Audis*. Anyone who doesn't understand the capabilities of the car should have it taken away from them and replaced with a diesel Chevette.

        4. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

          Re: Face it: Humans are lousy drivers

          (e.g. making pedals ONLY for acceleration, or ONLY for braking).

          That sounds too much like an attempt to make driving fool-proof. And we all know the adage about fools and fool-proof.

          To some extent, I agree with you, but on the other hand, aged 55, I can say I spent the first half of my working life driving maybe 30 miles per day and the second half driving up to 400 miles per day (40,000-60,0000 per year currently) and I can, with certainty, state that I have never pressed the wrong pedal.

          I suspect the only "fool-proof" car will be the JohnnyCab equivalent where the meatsack is merely a passenger who can state a destination and other than that has no other control over the vehicle.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    In other news

    NHTSA shrills found new Tesla's in their driveway for themselves, their spouse and their kids. And a nice job offer when they leave the NHTSA. Oh to be a govt official nowadays :-)

    1. danR2

      Re: In other news

      *shills

    2. Adrian Midgley 1

      Would you like to libel any

      particular one, to add to Tesla?

    3. This post has been deleted by its author

  6. Craig 2

    Sanity prevails it seems...

    A 40% reduction in accidents and it's not even news.

    Someone gets killed in an accident which *possibly* Autopilot contributed to and the world goes crazy :/

    1. mathew42

      Insurance companies watching

      > A 40% reduction in accidents and it's not even news.

      I expect that insurance companies are watching very closely because a 40% reduction in accidents would mean a very big saving. My opinion is that it is insurance premiums that will drive the take-up of driverless cars as the premium difference diverge.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Insurance companies watching

        I find the 40% reduction very suspicious. I think there are about 70000 Model S cars on the road in the US (100000 world wide as far as I can see).

        According to the ONS there were 31.5 million cars on the road in the UK in 2015 and 189000 (rounding up) were involved in accidents. So about 0.6% of cars were involved in accidents.

        Assuming that US drivers aren't much worse than UK drivers then we'd expect 420 accidents.

        So my questions are:

        1. Are there enough Tesla cars on the road to make a decent sample set?

        2. Are expensive cars driven more safely?

        3. What's the accident rate compared to other cars in the same class?

        4. What's the accident rate of Tesla Model S cars?

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Insurance companies watching

          "The NHTSA examined crash reports for Model S sedans and Model X SUVs and found that crashes dropped by over 40 per cent after Autopilot software was installed."

        2. DropBear Silver badge

          Re: Insurance companies watching

          I see your point but I'd consider a 40% change in a baseline figure of 420 accidents, if not definitive, still pretty significant. It's not like a 40% change from five accidents to three...

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Insurance companies watching

            if not definitive, still pretty significant

            Depends on the nature of avoided accidents? If most the avoided accidents were modest fender-benders, then there's a financial and convenience benefit. But only by reducing the incidence or severity of injury accidents will they improve safety. Lets see what the data shows.

            In this respect we should consider what evidence actually does show. Take the moral panic over mobile phones and driving. All the announced studies declare it to be a huge risk factor, with figures between 4x and 20x more likley to have an accident. Yet certainly on Britain's crowded roads the number of injuries and fatalities has dropped hugely between the (effective) advent of smartphones in 2007. Obviously there's all the other road safety interventions, but still seems to me that the evidence doesn't match the claims of the risk (not that I'm condoning use of phones whilst driving).

  7. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    Unhappy

    "crashes dropped by over 40 per cent after Autopilot software was installed."

    Granted that's a fairly small number of vehicles over a fairly short time but it does suggest a trend, doesn't it?

    Trouble is with the USG it goes from "We'd like you to do this" to "This is now mandatory," although car safety seems to be a special case where riding without a seat belt on is deeded as protecting the American Way of Life (TM).

  8. a_yank_lurker Silver badge

    Interesting

    The NHSTA is saying the Tesla's autopilot had a couple problems but that in this case the primary cause was driver incompetence and inattention. Can't fix stupid.

    1. Boris the Cockroach Silver badge

      You can fix

      stupid, but generally dont have to bother since it can take itself out of the gene pool quite nicely

      Should have eye tracking cameras installed.... if the driver does'nt look out of the windscreen for 2 seconds it sounds a loud alarm and starts droppping the throttle...

      1. John Robson Silver badge

        Re: You can fix

        Should have eye tracking cameras installed.... if the driver does'nt look out of the windscreen for 2 seconds it sounds a loud alarm and starts droppping the throttle...

        You mean like nVidia have recently demonstrated?

        Can't say it's a bad idea on any car - though a signal that you're in reverse gear might be useful ;)

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Impressed

    "....crashes dropped by over 40 per cent after Autopilot software was installed."

    I wish all the cell phone drivers had it installed.

    1. hplasm Silver badge
      Meh

      Re: Impressed

      "I wish all the cell phone drivers had it installed."

      I wish all the cell phone drivers had ejector seats installed.

  10. Martin Summers Silver badge

    "drivers were putting too much trust in the car's autonomous driving features."

    That's your problem right there. Whether he was sold a vision of a future we don't actually have yet with auto driving cars or not could be the real fault here. Along with that potentially and his speeding I would say it was 99.5% his fault.

    1. Dr. Mouse Silver badge

      I believe the driver is more at fault than the idiot who put their Winnebago on cruise control then went to make a cuppa. The difference being, in this case, all the Tesla manuals specifically state that it's not self-driving and you must remain attentive and ready to take back control.

      1. Danny 14 Silver badge

        Whilst the manuals state that, what did the salesman state?

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          In my case, when I went for a test drive in a Model S, pretty much what the manual said.

        2. Boothy

          Quote: "Whilst the manuals state that, what did the salesman state?"

          That's one of the things the judgement kicked up, basically stating Tesla needed to do more to make it clear in-car that this isn't a fully automated self driving car (at least not yet), and this needed to assume the drivers have not read the manual or other documents etc. i.e. like they've just jumped into a new car and set off, and then hit the autodrive button.

        3. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          It's worth mentioning that Tesla don't have what you would consider "car salesman". They are paid to explain the cars but do get paid any significant commission on sales.

          I think most Tesla customers have already convinced themselves they want a Tesla. I don't think we can say this poor guy was a victim of some over-rabid salesguy telling him the car would drive itself while he watch films.

          I think a more interesting discussion that I didn't see in this thread is how we will start to feel about deaths in driving being randomised - until now if you die while driving as most accidents are caused by human error there is at least some sense of 'fairness'. Drivers who are careful and drive defensively can decrease their changes of fatality. In the future with self-driving cars, no doubt they will be safer overall but they will occasionally still have accidents. If I consider myself an excellent driver would I accept a self-driving car that is better than the general population at driving but possibly worse than what I would do myself?

          whether drivers start to feel overconfident with the capabilities of autonomous cars. Even if

      2. Iain Gilbert

        I worry about these semi-autonomous systems, the monotony of the motorway + self steering and radar guided cruise control could leave a very low level of attention even from well intentioned drivers.

        Then add to this mobiles, attractive pedestrians/drivers ......

        1. JimC Silver badge

          >low level of attention

          and in spite of all that its still spectacularly safer than meatsack drivers...

          A 40% reduction in accidents is a mind bogglingly big improvement: its taken decades and millions to achieve that on British roads. Justgoes to show how spectacularly untrustworthy human drivers are.

          Half the trouble, it seems to me, is that many commenters don't know what the very limited capabilities of aviation autopilots are/were, especially earlier generation.

        2. tiggity Silver badge

          Don't get many pedestrians (attractive or otherwise) to distract you on the motorway....

  11. John G Imrie Silver badge
    Joke

    At Tesla, the safety of our customers comes first,

    So don't step out in front of one then.

  12. Dave 15

    what do you expect

    An American company ... of course the Americans arent going to chase it for a fine.

    Now if the American company had been supplied by a British company then they would fine the British company.... or if a British bank had invested the bank would get fined.

    Just the way it works.

    1. Dave Harvey

      Re: what do you expect

      Worse than that - if it had been a UK company, then the UK executives would be extradited without evidence, and be facing CRIMINAL charges!

  13. EUbrainwashing

    Hidden in the hubbub is the meaning

    Statistics. 40% reduction of what, of what exactly. Serious accidents causing injury and death? Elderly folk making a fender bender? I do not know. When I am on cruse control I am hovering over that brake, the car may be on cruse but I am still in control. If you look at the political hysterics pitched at VW fiddling emission results and the converse political fervour for the autonomous electric car you have got to know one thing: here lays an agenda and it is driven by the supply of energy.

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