On Tuesday, the National Transportation Safety Board is expected to find that Tesla’s semi-autonomous driving system, known as Autopilot, should partially be blamed for a 2016 fatal crash involving a Model S that slammed into the side of the truck, according to Bloomberg. The report comes after the family of Joshua Brown, the driver who was killed in the crash, released a statement that chided media coverage of the crash and said the feature isn’t to blame for his death.
The investigative staff of the NTSB is recommending that Autopilot be declared as a partial factor in the crash, Bloomberg reports, citing an unnamed person briefed on the findings. The reason, the report says, is because the feature allowed Brown to “go for long periods without steering or apparently even looking at the road.”
The decision comes at a precarious time for autonomous vehicle developers. Congress is currently debating legislation to help speed up the development of the technology behind self-driving cars, and automakers are spending billions in a race to deploy the first fully-autonomous vehicles for the public.
The NTSB’s staff is going to recommend a finding that Autopilot allowed Brown to “effectively” let the car drive itself, despite Tesla’s warnings and insistence that customers aren’t allowed, according to Bloomberg.
Earlier Monday, Brown’s family issued a statement that essentially found Tesla blameless in the incident.
“Joshua loved his Tesla Model S,” the statement said. “He studied and tested that car as a passion. When attending gatherings at the Tesla store, he would become the primary speaker answering questions about the technology and the car’s capabilities/limitations. In the videos Josh posted to YouTube about Tesla, he repeatedly emphasized safety, that the car was NOT autonomous, and that the driver had to pay attention.”
Brown’s death drew worldwide attention, as it was the first known fatal crash to involve a vehicle traveling on its own. A preliminary report released earlier this year by the NTSB found that Brown kept his hands on the wheel of his 2015 Model S70D for only 25 seconds of an extended 37-minute period where his car was in Autopilot at 74 mph. The vehicle gave numerous audio and visual warnings before the crash.
The Brown family took issue with the framing of the warnings Brown received, saying it falsely implied that Brown “continued to ignore these repeated reminders (and keep his hands off the wheel) until he finally struck the truck,” the statement said.
It’s not inconceivable that on a clear stretch of a freeway, you could operate the car in Autopilot and only be required to touch the wheel to assure the vehicle’s system that you’re still paying attention.
But there was ultimately some issues with the technology. Tesla CEO Elon Musk said himself that a later update to Autopilot—improving the system’s ability to differentiate a truck from a sign—“very likely” would’ve prevented the crash.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration closed out a separate probe into Autopilot earlier this year, finding no defects with the feature. A class-action lawsuit filed earlier this year said Autopilot is “dangerously defective” that results in Tesla cars often “lurching, slamming on the brakes for no reason, and failing to slow or stop when approaching other vehicles.” Tesla disputed the allegations and called the suit “disingenuous,” “inaccurate” and “sensationalist,” and an attempt to extort attorney’s fees.
The full Brown family statement is below. If you’re interested in following the NTSB hearing tomorrow, a webcast is being hosted here.
On May 7, 2016, Joshua Brown (40) of Canton, Ohio, was killed in a motor vehicle crash in Williston, Florida when his Tesla collided with a semi-tractor trailer that failed to yield when crossing a divided highway.
Josh was a veteran, an exceptional citizen, and a successful entrepreneur. Most importantly, he was a loving son, brother and uncle. Josh served 11 years in the United States Navy. He was a master Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) technician and achieved the rank of Chief Petty Officer. He proudly served as a member of EOD Mobile Unit 3 out of San Diego, CA, and then the Navy’s elite Naval Special Warfare Development Group (NSWDG) out of Dam Neck, VA. Josh was deployed to multiple war zones as part of the special operations groups. He also served at the White House and overseas supporting Secret Service operations.
Joshua loved technology and was a successful entrepreneur. He developed several database applications widely used by the Navy. In 2010, he started his own technology company, Nexu Innovations. The company primarily focused on developing and installing WIFI and surveillance systems, but also developed other technology driven applications.
This fatal and tragic collision was the first documented crash involving the use of driver assist autopilot technology. It generated worldwide media attention. Unfortunately, while some of the reporting was accurate, many media outlets published or broadcast speculation about the crash which was later proven to be false. Many of those accusations were damaging to our son’s reputation and a twist of the knife in the open wound of our family. Since May 7th, 2016, our family has endured reading, listening, and watching as international attention played out on this tragedy. We have intentionally remained silent because we fully believed it was critical to have all the facts before making any public judgments.
Multiple official investigations, evaluations, and reports are now complete. This includes those conducted by the Florida Highway Patrol, Medical Examiners, Tesla, and the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (“NHTSA”). The National Transportation Safety Board (“NTSB”) has not yet released its final report, but has made all of their investigations and findings public.
We now feel it is time to try to set the record straight based on the facts. We urge all news organizations to give as much coverage to the truth which has now been confirmed through these investigations as they did to the unverified speculation in the early sensationalized reporting. We hope the truth gains as wide an audience as did those false statements.
Some media falsely claimed that Josh was traveling well over 100 mph. Within a few days of the crash, it was verified Josh was on cruise control (Tesla Autopilot). It was set at 74 mph. Although above the speed limit, it is significantly different than the original extreme speeds which were rumored and repeated by some media outlets.
It was “reported” that Josh was watching a Harry Potter movie at the time of the accident. This movie was purported to be playing either on the large screen in the Tesla console or a portable DVD player. Both claims have been proven untrue. There was no Harry Potter video found in the car and no video device in the vehicle that was capable of playing a movie. Moreover, the eye witness accounts taken from those people who were first on the scene after the crash confirmed there was no movie playing.
It was reported after the NTSB findings were released that Joshua was given 7 reminders to put his hands on the steering wheel prior to the accident. The false implication in the news stories was that Josh continued to ignore these repeated reminders (and keep his hands off the wheel) until he finally struck the truck. In reality, Teslas are designed so that every few minutes if the car does not sense hands on the steering wheel, it provides the driver with a visual reminder. If that is ignored, it then gives an audible reminder. If that is ignored, the car will slow down and stop. Understanding how this technology works, we now know Joshua responded by putting his hands on the steering wheel. Aware of both the vehicle’s abilities and limitations, Joshua followed the prompts of the Tesla with each series of indications received. Otherwise, the Tesla would have automatically slowed and stopped.
Joshua loved his Tesla Model S. He studied and tested that car as a passion. When attending gatherings at the Tesla store, he would become the primary speaker answering questions about the technology and the car’s capabilities/limitations. In the videos Josh posted to YouTube about Tesla, he repeatedly emphasized safety, that the car was NOT autonomous, and that the driver had to pay attention.
We heard numerous times that the car killed our son. That is simply not the case. There was a small window of time when neither Joshua nor the Tesla features noticed the truck making the left-hand turn in front of the car. People die every day in car accidents. Many of those are caused by lack of attention or inability to see the danger. Joshua believed, and our family continues to believe, that the new technology going into cars and the move to autonomous driving has already saved many lives. Change always comes with risks, and zero tolerance for deaths would totally stop innovation and improvements.
Nobody wants tragedy to touch their family, but expecting to identify all limitations of an emerging technology and expecting perfection is not feasible either. When rail systems, metro systems, and personal vehicles (etc.) were constructed, fatalities occurred and we learned from them. Who determines it has been vetted enough? Life is a balancing act. Barring blatant recklessness, finding common ground will always be a debate.
Part of Joshua’s legacy is that his accident drove additional improvements making the new technology even safer. Tesla has done extensive research into the accident and how it might have been prevented. They have made significant investments toward improvements and the Version 8 software release included numerous safety improvements that were a direct result of that research. Tesla continues to release additional features based on lessons learned from Josh’s accident. Our family takes solace and pride in the fact that our son is making such a positive impact on future highway safety.