Groups advocating for consumers, automakers and safer roadways are calling for more federal action to address driver disengagement and distraction while operating a vehicle with partial automation.
The calls for action followed a public hearing held Tuesday by the National Transportation Safety Board to determine the probable cause of the March 23, 2018, fatal crash of a Tesla Model X in Mountain View, Calif.
The Mountain View crash is the fourth investigation the NTSB has taken up in recent years involving Tesla Inc.'s advanced driver-assistance system known as Autopilot.
The safety board listed three probable causes for the crash, which killed the driver, Walter Huang, a 38-year-old Apple Inc. software engineer. The NTSB determined limitations of the Tesla Autopilot system, Huang's overreliance on Autopilot and his distraction — "likely from a cellphone game application," the board said — caused the crash.
The NTSB also cited systematic issues with the California Department of Transportation's repair of traffic safety hardware in a timely manner and the state's highway patrol for failure to report previous damage to the concrete highway barrier on U.S. 101 that Huang's vehicle struck. Investigators at the hearing said Huang "would most likely have survived the collision" had the crash attenuator been repaired and in functional condition.
Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety — a consortium of consumer, medical, public health and safety groups as well as insurance companies — said the NTSB hearing shows why "commonsense safeguards" must be part of autonomous vehicle legislation being considered by Congress.
"The U.S. Department of Transportation must prioritize safety by issuing minimum safety performance standards, conducting thorough oversight and requiring industry accountability," Cathy Chase, president of Advocates, said in a statement.
The Center for Auto Safety, in a statement before the hearing, said for years it has called on the government to "address the obvious risks of misleading terms like 'Autopilot' and 'full self-driving,' " which do not replace drivers behind the wheel.
Consumer Reports, another safety advocate for consumers, called for manufacturers to include "key safety features in any vehicle" with ADAS, where the technology not only helps drivers to accelerate, brake and steer, but also requires them to pay attention and operate the vehicle responsibly. The group also pressed NHTSA to enforce those protections.
"The evidence is clear, and continuing to pile up, that if a car makes it easier for people to take their attention off the road, they're going to do so — with potentially deadly consequences," Ethan Douglas, senior policy analyst for cars and product safety at Consumer Reports, said in a statement.
Federal safety regulators have not done enough to reduce these risks, Douglas said, and the NTSB hearing is clear evidence that NHTSA's "hands-off approach is far too weak."
The newly established Alliance for Automotive Innovation — formed in a merger of Global Automakers and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers — pointed to the promise of autonomous vehicle technologies and the benefits to public mobility while adding that drivers on today's roads can't evade responsibility.
"No vehicle widely available to the public removes the responsibility of the driver to stay awake, aware and responsible for the vehicle," John Bozzella, CEO of the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, said in a statement. "The most important safety feature in any vehicle today is the driver. They must maintain awareness and control at all times."
Board members urged NHTSA to adopt new and prior safety recommendations, including ones sent to the agency in 2017 asking for minimum performance standards for connected-vehicle technology and a standard format for reporting data from automated vehicle control systems.
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and Global Automakers also were recipients of the 2017 NTSB safety recommendations, which stemmed from the probe of a fatal May 7, 2016, crash of a Tesla Model S near Williston, Fla. The board asked the auto lobbying groups to notify their members of the importance of adding system safeguards that limit the use of automated vehicle control systems "to those conditions for which they were designed."
NHTSA, in a statement after the Tuesday hearing, said it is aware of the NTSB report and is carefully reviewing it.
"All commercially available motor vehicles require the human driver to be in control at all times, and all states hold the human driver responsible for vehicle operations," the agency said. "Distraction-affected crashes are a major concern, including those involving advanced driver-assistance features."
NHTSA said it will continue to work with states and local partners to curb distracted driving.