NTSB: Autopilot Design Flaw, Inattentive Driver Led to Tesla-Firetruck Crash


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The NTSB said a combination of a  flaw in Tesla’s highly regarded (certainly by Tesla) Autopilot system, plus driver inattention, caused a Tesla Model S to slam into an on-call firetruck parked on a California freeway in January 2018. No one was injured, but the 2014 Tesla Model S P85 needed more than Dent Wizard repairs.

The National Transportation Safety Board said:

[T]he probable cause for the crash was the Tesla driver’s lack of response to the fire truck parked in his lane, due to his inattention and overreliance on the car’s advanced driver assistance system; the Tesla’s Autopilot design which permitted the driver to disengage from the driving task; and the driver’s use of the system in ways inconsistent with guidance and warnings from Tesla.

An NTSB timeline of the January 2018 crash in which a Tesla Model S rear-ended Engine 42 of the Culver City, CA, fire department. Orange segments show when Autopilot was engaged and the driver was hands-off the wheel. The crash is the right side of the timeline.

The NTSB recreated the 66-minute trip that ended in the crash (graphic above), with the help of Tesla’s onboard data recorder and various sensors. It found the driver was hands-off (on and off) for 12 of the 13 minutes leading up to the crash. The driver is supposed to always have hands at least lightly on the wheel to allow safe Level 2 self-driving. The latter means the car stays centered in its lane (if there are no sharp curves, this is almost never a problem on interstates) and maintains a set speed and/or paces the car in front. Most drivers of  Level 2 cars soon learn they can get away with giving the steering a little jiggle every 10-15 seconds and in some cases, even less often.

Here’s what the NTSB said in this week’s preliminary finding (NTSB accident ID HWY18FH004):

The NTSB’s investigation revealed the crash trip lasted about 66 minutes, covering about 30 miles, with the “Autopilot” system engaged for a total of 29 minutes, 4 seconds. Hands were detected on the Tesla’s steering wheel for only 78 seconds of that 29-minute, 4-second period. For most of the time the system was engaged, it did not detect driver -applied steering wheel torque (hands on the steering wheel). The “Autopilot” system issued several hands-off alerts during the last 13 minutes, 48 seconds prior to the crash and was engaged continuously during those nearly 14 final minutes of the crash trip. In the last 3 minutes, 41 seconds before the crash the system did not detect driver-applied steering wheel torque.

During most of the driver’s operation with the “Autopilot” engaged, the system detected and followed a lead vehicle, one that was ahead of the Tesla. In the 15 seconds prior to the crash the system detected and followed two different lead vehicles. Data show that 3 to 4 seconds before the crash, the lead vehicle changed lanes to the right, a movement commonly referred to as a “cut-out scenario” in testing and research. When the Traffic-Aware Cruise Control no longer detected a lead vehicle, the system accelerated the Tesla from about 21 mph toward the preset cruise speed of 80 mph, which had been set by the driver about 5 minutes before the crash. The “Autopilot” system detected a stationary object in the Tesla’s path about 0.49 seconds before the crash and the forward collision warning activated, displaying a visual warning and sounding an auditory warning. By the moment of impact, the Tesla had accelerated to 30.9 mph.

In simple terms, Autopilot finally recognized the firetruck when the two vehicles were 40-45 feet apart (basic math: a vehicle at 30 mph covers 44 feet per second), about two car lengths. The 47-year-old male driver told the NTSB he bought the Tesla in part because he could use the HOV lane to get to work in LA from his home in Woodland Hills (median home price: $815,000) without taking on a passenger. He was, however, accompanied by a cup of coffee and a bagel, but can’t remember if he was drinking coffee or eating the bagel when the car struck the firetruck and the airbag went off. (Memo to NTSB: Check the shirt for spatter marks.) He bought the Model S used, did not real the manuals, but did have the car safety-checked and says the Tesla staff explained the workings of Autopilot.

As a result of the accident, the report says, the NTSB went to the makers of Level 2-autonomy cars in the US and asked what they were doing to develop apps to “more effectively sense the driver’s level of engagement and alert the driver when the engagement is lacking while automated vehicle control systems are in use.” It went to VW Group (which includes Audi), BMW, Nissan, Mercedes-Benz, Tesla, and Volvo. According to the NTSB, “All manufacturers except Tesla have responded to the NTSB.”

So, while the driver was not paying fullest attention, the blame for the crash, according to the NTSB, also goes to the “Tesla Autopilot’s design … which permitted the driver to disengage from the driving task … and the driver’s use of the system in ways inconsistent with guidance and warnings from the manufacturer.”

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Nissan Develops Self-Steering Golf Ball for ‘Stress-Free’ Perfect Putts


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Nissan is finding new uses for its ProPilot Assist self-driving technology. Right nows, it’s ramping up for the September debut of the Nissan Skyline, the Skyline being, effectively, the Infiniti Q50 in the US. And so Nissan-Infiniti developed the ProPilot golf ball with self-guiding technology embedded. Seriously. On the green, you putt the ball more or less in the direction of the hole, and it finds the way.

The intelligent golf ball also makes use of a camera in a drone overhead that tracks the ball’s progress and issues corrections to an internal motor that can change the ball’s path of progress. Cars don’t have drones to track their progress, but they do have cameras in the car, sometimes also radar, lidar, and sonar, to make sure the car stays on-course and reacts to potential hazards.

Innards of Nissan’s ProPilot golf ball. Try not to lose it in a water hazard.

Nissan explains ProPilot and the ProPilot golf ball this way:

Similar to the Skyline’s ProPilot 2.0 advanced technology, the ProPilot golf ball supports golfers by following a predefined route to its goal. Players can feel confident that they will reach their target effortlessly on each putt. Using technology influenced by Nissan Intelligent Mobility – the company’s vision for how cars are powered, driven and integrated into society – the ball navigates its way across the green and into the cup on the first putt, providing a stress-free golf experience.

An overhead camera detects the position of the ball and cup. When the ball is hit, a monitoring system calculates the correct route based on the ball’s movement and adjusts its trajectory. Combining sensing technology with an internal electric motor, the ProPilot golf ball stays on route until reaching the cup – making even novice golfers, of all ages, feel like pros.

Imagine what the Nissan golf ball could have done for Rodney Dangerfield’s game in Caddyshack (1980), still one of the finest sports movies ever. Also, the source of one of the finest pieces bits of golf advice, from Al Czervik (Dangerfield) to a slow-playing partner: “Let’s go — while we’re young.” (Photo: Warner Home Video)

Nissan’s ProPilot 2.0 driver assistance technology will be part of the Skyline. Nissan says ProPilot 2.0 is “designed for on-ramp to off-ramp (ramp-to-ramp) highway driving … [and] engages with the vehicle’s navigation system to help maneuver the car according to a predefined route on designated roadways. The system is the first in the world to combine this with hands-off driving capability while cruising in a single lane.”

This would put the Skyline at the high end of Level 2 autonomy, which other automakers have reached as well: Audi Traffic Jam Assist, BMW Personal CoPilot, Cadillac Super Cruise, Ford CoPilot Assist+, Tesla Autopilot, and Volvo Pilot Assist, among others. The next step, Level 3, allows hands-off driving and the car, not the driver, is responsible for monitoring the world around him or her. But the driver must be able to take over on short notice. It’s not clear if Nissan will target Level 2 or Level 3 driving.

Some say the path to full autonomy (any time, any place, any weather) may skip Level 3. The difference between L3 and L4 is that L3 requires the driver to resume driving on short notice, short notice not being clear as to whether that’s in two seconds or half a minute.

Here’s a Nissan video of a four-year-old making short work of the green with the Nissan ProPilot ball.

Inspiration comes from many sources, and vice-versa. The NASA space program of the 1960s made the Tang artificially flavored orange drink a household name. Now Nissan is finding new uses for its Intelligent Mobility self-driving and self-parking, including the self-correcting golf ball. Combine the two and you have an Apollo 14 astronaut hitting a golf ball a mile, more or less, on the reduced-gravity, zero-wind-resistance Moon in 1971.

Nissan has found other uses for its vision and driver-assistance systems including the Intelligent Parking Chair, in the video below. Now all we need is a robot that picks up the juice bottles, coffee cups, and pizza boxes after a staff lunch.

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