The Tesla autopilot is back in the spotlight of the government. On February 25, in Washington, DC, investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) will present the results of his nearly two-year investigation into Wei "Walter" Huang's fatal crash. Huang died on March 23, 2018, when his Tesla Model X hit the barrier between a left exit and the HOV lane on US-101 outside of Mountain View, California. At the time of the crash, he was using Tesla's advanced driver assistance function, autopilot.
It is the second time that the NTSB is holding a public meeting to investigate an autopilot crash. In 2017, the NTSB found that a lack of “safeguards” contributed to the death of 40-year-old Joshua Brown in Florida. Tomorrow's event also takes place just a few months after a similar meeting was held by the NTSB, at which Uber was partially responsible for the death of Elaine Herzberg, the pedestrian who was killed in 2018 after being hit by one of the company's self-driving test vehicles had been hit.
After investigators report their findings, board members will vote on any proposed recommendations and make a final decision on the likely cause of the crash. While the NTSB does not have the legal authority to implement or enforce these recommendations, they can be adopted by the regulatory authorities. The entire meeting will be broadcast live on the NTSB website from 1:00 p.m. ET.
The meeting begins at 1:00 p.m. CET and is broadcast live
In the days leading up to the meeting, the NTSB opened the public protocol for the investigation and exposed the factual information gathered by the NTSB investigators. (Among the results: Huang had problems with autopilot in the same place where he crashed, and he may have been playing a cell phone game before the crash.) The NTSB released a preliminary report in June 2018, outlining some of its earliest results , including that Huang's car headed towards the barrier and accelerated before the impact.
Tesla admitted shortly after Huang's death that the autopilot was turned on during the crash, but indicated that he had "received several visual and audible practical warnings at the start of the trip," and claimed that Huang's hands "were not recognized on the steering wheel were for six seconds before the collision ”, which is why“ no action was taken ”to bypass the barrier.
This announcement resulted in the NTSB removing Tesla from the investigation to release information "before it was reviewed and approved by the Board" – a process that all parties must agree to when they join the NTSB investigation.
The newly published documents show that a constellation of factors likely contributed to Huang's death, and autopilot was only one of them. Deciding what role Tesla's advanced driver assistance function played is probably only part of what investigators and the board will discuss. However, since this is the second time that the NTSB has completed an autopilot crash investigation, its conclusions could be weighty.
After all, we expect the following from tomorrow's meeting.
One of the first things that will happen after NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt opens tomorrow's meeting (and introduces the people who are there) is that the lead investigator goes through an overview of the crash.
Most details of the crash are well known, especially after the preliminary report was released in 2018. However, documents released last week paint a more complete picture.
On March 23, 2018 at 8:53 p.m. PT, Huang took his son to preschool in Foster City, California, as most days. Huang then drove his 2017 Tesla Model X to US-101 and began the 40-minute drive south to his job at Apple in Mountain View, California.
Huang was very interested in how autopilot works and used it a lot, the investigators found
On the way, he hired Tesla's Autopilot driver assistance system. Huang had used autopilot a lot since he bought the X model in late 2017. His wife told them that he had become "very familiar" with the function, as the investigators put it, and had even seen YouTube videos about it. He also spoke to colleagues about autopilot, and his manager said Huang – a software engineer – was fascinated by the software behind autopilot.
Huang switched on the autopilot four times during this trip to work. The last time he activated it, he left it on for 18 minutes until it crashed.
Tesla instructs owners (in their car owner's manuals and also through the car's infotainment screens) to keep their hands on the wheel when using autopilot. When the autopilot is active, the car also continuously monitors whether a driver is applying torque to the steering wheel to ensure that his hands are on the steering wheel. (Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, rejected more complex driver monitoring systems because he said they were "ineffective.")
If the car does not measure enough torque on the steering wheel, an increasing number of visual and then acoustic warnings for the driver flash.
Huang received a number of these warnings during the last 18 minutes of autopilot use, the investigators said. Less than two minutes after he last activated autopilot, the system gave a visual and then an audible warning that he should put his hands on the steering wheel, which he did. A minute later, he received another visual warning. He received no further warnings in the last 13 to 14 minutes before the crash. However, the data shows that the car measured no steering input in approximately 34.4 percent of the last 18-minute autopilot session.
The autopilot was still on when Huang approached a section of US-101 south, where a left exit lane allows cars to enter State Route 85. If this exit lane moves further to the left, a “gore area” is created between it and the HOV lane. Ultimately, a concrete median increases that acts as a barrier between the two lanes.
Huang was on the HOV lane thanks to the clean air sticker that an electric vehicle had. Five seconds before the crash, when the exit lane split off to the left, Huang's Model X began to follow the lines into the gore area between the HOV lane and the exit lane. Investigators found that autopilot first lost sight of the HOV lane lines and then quickly picked up the lines of the Gore area as if it were a separate freeway lane.
Huang's Tesla steered him to the barrier and accelerated before the crash
Huang had set his cruise control to 75 mph, but he was following cars that drove closer to 62 mph. When his Model X pointed him at the barrier, it no longer registered cars in front of it and accelerated again to 75 miles per hour.
Huang crashed into the barrier a few seconds later. The large metal crash damper in front of the barrier, which is said to help deflect part of the kinetic energy of a moving car, had been completely crushed in another crash 11 days earlier. Investigators found that the California transit department had not repaired the attenuator despite an estimated repair time of "15 to 30 minutes" and an average cost of "less than $ 100". This meant that Huang's Model X essentially crashed into the concrete median behind the attenuator, with most of the car's kinetic energy intact.
Despite the violent hit, Huang initially survived the crash. (A car also hit him from behind.) A number of cars stopped on the highway. Several people called 911. A couple of drivers and a motorcyclist approached Huang's car and helped pull it out, noticing that the Model X batteries started to hiss and pop. After trying to take off his jacket, they were able to put Huang in relative safety before the Model X battery caught fire.
Paramedics performed a CPR on Huang and performed a blood transfusion when they took him to a nearby hospital. He was treated for cardiac arrest and blunt pelvic trauma, but died a few hours later.
One of the new details in the documents released last week is that Huang may have been playing a mobile game called Three Kingdoms when he drove to work that day.
Investigators received Huang's cell phone recordings from AT&T, and since he mainly used an iPhone development model provided by Apple, the company was also able to use the company to retrieve diagnostic data from his phone. Using this data, investigators were able to determine that there was a "pattern of active gaming" every morning at about the same time the week before Huang's death, although they indicated that the data did not provide enough information to determine whether (Huang) the phone was in hand or how interactive he was with the game at the time of the crash.
Another possible factor in Huang's death is the crash attenuator itself and the fact that it hasn't been repaired for 11 days. As early as September 2019, the NTSB issued an early recommendation to California officials asking them to speed up the repair of attenuators.
The NTSB will likely point to a number of factors that contributed to Huang's death
The design of the left exit and the gore area in front of the attenuator is also something that the board probably contributed to Huang's death. In fact, Huang fought autopilot on the same section of the highway a few times before his death, according to new information released last week.
Huang's family has said since his death that he previously complained about how autopilot would pull him to the left where he eventually crashed. Investigators found two examples of this in the data a month before his death.
On February 27, 2018, data showed that autopilot Huang's wheel turned 6 degrees to the left and aimed it at the gore area between the HOV lane and the left exit. However, Huang's hands were on the steering wheel and two seconds later he turned the steering wheel and kept on the HOV track. On March 19, 2018 – the Monday before his death – autopilot Huang's wheel turned 5.1 degrees and steered it towards the same gore area. Huang pulled the car back into the HOV lane a second later.
Huang had complained to one of his friends who was a co-owner of Tesla about the problem. The two complained about a new Tesla software update five days before the crash, when Huang told the friend that autopilot "almost made me get back to the median this morning."
Role of the autopilot
Whether autopilot played a role in Huang's death (and if so, to what extent) will likely get a lot of attention during Tuesday's meeting.
The NTSB has already completed an investigation into a fatal autopilot crash and made recommendations based on this. But the circumstances of this crash were very different from Huang's. In 2016, Joshua Brown was using autopilot on a divided Florida freeway when a tractor-trailer crossed in front of him. Autopilot could not see the broadside of the trailer before Brown crashed into it, and Brown took no evasive action.
The design of the autopilot "allowed the driver to rely too much on automation," the NTSB wrote in its 2017 results. (Tesla has said that excessive trust in the autopilot is the cause of many accidents that occur while the feature is enabled, although it continues to claim that driving with autopilot reduces the likelihood of an accident.) The board wrote that autopilot "allowed longer disengagement from the driving task and allowed the driver to switch to a Use in ways that are inconsistent with the manufacturer's instructions and warnings. "
In return, the NTSB Tesla (and any other automaker working on similar advanced driver assistance systems) recommended adding new safeguards that limit abuse of features like autopilot. The NTSB also recommended companies like Tesla to develop better ways to recognize a driver's engagement while using features like autopilot.
Tesla has increased the frequency of warnings since Huang's death
Since Huang's death, Tesla has increased the frequency and reduced the delay time for warnings for drivers who appear to have no hands on the steering wheel while the autopilot is active. Whether the company has gone far enough is likely to be discussed on Tuesday.
Why Tesla Was Thrown From The Probe
On March 30, 2018, a week after Huang's death, Tesla announced that the autopilot was on during the crash. The company also claimed Huang had his hands off the steering wheel and received several warnings in the minutes before the crash.
The NTSB was not pleased that Tesla shared this information during the ongoing investigation. Sumwalt called Musk on April 6, 2018, to inform him that this violated the agreement that Tesla signed to participate in the investigation. Tesla then issued another statement to the press on April 10, which the NTSB considered "incomplete, analytical, and (speculative) as to the cause" of the crash. So Sumwalt called Musk again and told him Tesla would be removed from the investigation.
Tesla claimed it had withdrawn from the investigation because, as the Wall Street Journal said at the time, the company believed that "restrictions on disclosure could jeopardize public security." Whether this will show up in tomorrow's session will be another thing to watch out for.
One thing that cannot be resolved on Tuesday is the lawsuit that Huang's family filed against Tesla in 2019. The family's lawyer argued last year that Huang had died because "Tesla beta-tested its autopilot software on live drivers." This case is ongoing.
The NTSB is expected to make a number of recommendations based on the results of the investigation at the end of tomorrow's hearings. If necessary, it can also describe a recommendation as "urgent". The board may comment on whether it believes Tesla has made progress on the recommendations it made at Brown's 2017 fatal crash session. These recommendations included:
- Crash data should "be recorded and available in standard formats for new vehicles with automated vehicle control systems".
- Manufacturers should "include system protection measures to limit the use of automated control systems to conditions for which they are designed" (and that there should be a standard method of reviewing these protection measures).
- Car manufacturers should develop ways to "more effectively capture a driver's engagement and alertness when engagement is lacking."
- Car manufacturers should "report incidents, accidents, and exposure figures for vehicles equipped with automated vehicle control systems."
While Tesla helped the NTSB recover and process data from Huang's car, the company still protects its crash data far better than other manufacturers. In fact, some property owners have sued for access to this data. And while Tesla has increased the frequency of autopilot warnings after Huang's crash, nothing has changed in monitoring the drivers who use this feature. (Other companies, such as Cadillac, use methods such as eye tracking technology to ensure drivers watch the road while using driver assistance features.)
The recommendations of the NTSB could improve or even go beyond these original guidelines. While it doesn't change the fact that Walter Huang passed away in 2018, the agency's actions on Tuesday could help further advance the autopilot experience. The NTSB recently opened another investigation into an autopilot-related death, and autopilot is being closely scrutinized by lawmakers. Whatever comes from Tuesday's meeting, it seems that the spotlight on autopilot is only getting brighter from here.
Update February 24, 10:25 p.m. ET: This post has been updated to reflect that the NTSB meeting begins on February 25th at 1:00 p.m. ET.