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Tesla Autopilot was engaged before 2018 California crash, NTSB finds

By Kirsten Korosec

A Tesla Model S was in Autopilot mode — the company’s advanced driver assistance system — when it crashed into a fire truck in Southern California last year, according to a preliminary report released Tuesday by the National Transportation Safety Board.

Reuters was the first to report on the contents of the public documents. A final accident brief, including NTSB’s determination of probable cause, is scheduled to be published Wednesday.

The crash, involving a 2014 Tesla Model S, occurred January 22, 2018 in Culver City, Calif. The Tesla had Autopilot engaged for nearly 14 minutes when it struck a fire truck that was parked on Interstate 405. The driver was not injured in the crash and the fire truck was unoccupied.

Tesla has not commented on the report. TechCrunch will update if the company provides a statement.

The report found that the driver’s hands were not on the wheel for the vast majority of that time despite receiving numerous alerts. Autopilot was engaged in the final 13 minutes and 48 seconds of the trip and the system detected driver-applied steering wheel torque for only 51 seconds of that time, the NTSB said. Other findings include:

  • The system presented a visual alert regarding hands-off operation of the Autopilot on four separate occasions.
  • The system presented a first-level auditory warning on one occasion; it occurred following the first visual alert.
  • The longest period during which the system did not detect driver-applied steering wheel torque was 3 minutes and 41 seconds.

In the 2018 crash into a fire truck, the vehicle was operating a “Hardware Version 1” and a firmware version that had been installed via an over-the-air software update on December 28, 2017. The technology provided a number of convenience and safety features, including forward, lane departure and side collision warnings and automatic emergency braking as well as its adaptive cruise control and so-called Autosteer features, which when used together

Public docket opened Tuesday, for investigation of Jan. 22, 2018, Culver City, California, highway crash involving a Tesla & Culver City Fire Dept. fire truck; https://t.co/UbgF0ll9dA. Final accident brief, including probable cause, slated to publish Sept. 4, 2019.

— NTSB_Newsroom (@NTSB_Newsroom) September 3, 2019

While the report didn’t find any evidence that the driver was texting or calling in the moments leading up to the crash, a witness told investigators that he was looking down at what appear to be a smartphone. It’s possible that the driver was holding a coffee or bagel at the time of the crash, the report said.

Autopilot has come under scrutiny by the NTSB, notably a 2016 fatal crash in Florida and a more recent one involving a Walter Huang, who died after his Model X crashed into a highway median in California. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration also opened an inquiry into the 2016 fatal crash and ultimately found no defects in the Autopilot system. NTSB determined the 2016 fatal crash was caused by a combination of factors that included limitations of the system.

The family of Huang filed in May 2019 a lawsuit against Tesla and the State of California Department of Transportation. The wrongful death lawsuit, filed in California Superior Court, County of Santa Clara, alleges that errors by Tesla’s Autopilot driver assistance system caused the crash.

Audi e-tron becomes the first all-electric vehicle to earn IIHS top safety rating

By Kirsten Korosec

The 2019 Audi e-tron has become the first battery-electric vehicle to earn a top safety rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an achievement that Tesla and other electric models like the Chevy Bolt have not been able to capture.

Scoring an IIHS top safety award isn’t easy. A vehicle has to earn good ratings in six crashworthiness evaluations, as well as an advanced or superior rating for front crash prevention and a good headlight rating.

IIHS said Wednesday that the e-tron fulfills the criteria to earn a top safety rating with standard equipment. The vehicle performed well in crashworthiness testing, earning good ratings in the driver-side small overlap front, passenger-side small overlap front, moderate overlap front, side, roof strength and head restraint tests, according to IIHS.

The SUV’s standard front crash prevention system rated superior in IIHS track tests. It avoided a collision in the 25 mph test and reduced its impact speed by an average of 11 mph in the 12 mph test. Its forward collision warning component meets National Highway Traffic Safety Administration criteria.

The award provides a much needed boost to the e-tron. There’s a lot riding on the e-tron, the German automaker’s first mass-produced electric vehicle. And while TechCrunch’s Matt Burns found it quick, comfortable and familiar, the vehicle has had a rocky start that included a voluntary recall in the U.S. due to the risk of battery fire.

Tesla has gotten close to the top safety pick designation. A Tesla Model S was tested in 2017 and performed well, but fell short of earning the top score due to poor headlights and an “acceptable” score in the small overlap crash test. The IIHS has never tested the Tesla Model X.

The electric automaker does have another chance. This time, it’s with the Tesla Model 3, which IIHS is currently testing, according to a recent tweet from the organization.

Tests of the 2019 Tesla Model 3 commence next week with the side crash test. pic.twitter.com/yXtbGDC9h9

— IIHS (@IIHS_autosafety) August 7, 2019

The Model 3 has already achieved an all-around five-star safety rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Despite the high marks, NHTSA and Tesla have tussled over how the automaker has characterized the rating in an October 7 blog post when it said the Model 3 had achieved the lowest probability of injury of any vehicle the agency ever tested.

Earlier this month, Hyundai’s hydrogen fuel cell SUV, the Nexo, became the first fuel cell vehicle to be tested and to earn IIHS’s top safety award. 

Hyundai’s fuel cell SUV just scored a top safety rating from IIHS

By Kirsten Korosec

The Hyundai Nexo, a hydrogen fuel cell SUV first unveiled at CES 2018, has earned a top safety award from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

The award, announced Thursday, marks two firsts. The Nexo is the first fuel cell vehicle to earn IIHS’s top safety award. Then again, it’s also the first fuel cell vehicle IIHS has ever tested.

The top safety pick+ award is for 2019 Hyundai Nexo vehicles built after June 2019, when the automaker adjusted the headlights to provide better visibility through curves. Any Nexo vehicles produced prior to June still get high marks, but fall short of the top award. Instead, they qualify for IIHS’ second-tier top safety award. The Nexo joins other 2019 Hyundai and Kia vehicles to earn top safety pick+ awards, including the Hyundai Elantra, Kia Niro hybrid and Kia Soul.

The market for the Nexo is small right now. Within the U.S., the new vehicle, which has a base price of $58,300, is only sold in California. Deliveries of the vehicle to California residents began in December 2018. The vehicle has been available to customers in Korea since early 2018.

Normally, such a limited vehicle wouldn’t be included in IIHS’s routine test schedule, the organization said. Hyundai nominated the vehicle for testing. IIHS says it ended up benefiting too because it gave the organization an early opportunity to evaluate a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle.

Earning this top safety pick+ award isn’t easy. A vehicle has to earn good ratings in the driver-side small overlap front, passenger-side small overlap front, moderate overlap front, side, roof strength and head restraint tests. It also needs an advanced or superior rating for front crash prevention and a good headlight rating.

The Nexo, a midsize luxury SUV, has good ratings in all six crashworthiness tests, IIHS said. The Nexo’s standard front crash prevention system earned a superior rating. The vehicle avoided collisions in 12 mph and 25 mph track tests and has a forward collision warning system that meets National Highway Traffic Safety Administration criteria, according to IIHS.

The Nexo could someday become more common, and even used in fleets. Self-driving vehicle startup Aurora has been working with Hyundai and Kia for the last year to integrate its “Driver” into Hyundai’s Nexo.

US regulators take aim at Tesla over Model 3 safety claims

By Kirsten Korosec

Tesla’s claims about the safety of its Model 3 electric vehicle prompted U.S. regulators to send a cease-and-desist letter and escalate the matter by asking the Federal Trade Commission to investigate, according to documents released by the nonprofit legal transparency website PlainSite.

The documents show correspondence between the lawyers at National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Tesla that began after the automaker’s October 7 blog post that said the Model 3 had achieved the lowest probability of injury of any vehicle the agency ever tested. PlainSite received the 79 pages of communications since January 2018 between NHTSA and Tesla through a Freedom of Information Act request. There were 450 pages of communication that were withheld due to Tesla’s request for confidentiality on the basis of “trade secrets.”

NHTSA took issue with the blog post, arguing that Tesla’s claims were inconsistent with its advertising guidelines regarding crash ratings. The matter might have ended with that demand. But NHTSA took the issue further and informed Tesla it would ask the Federal Trade Commission to weigh in.

“This is not the first time that Tesla has disregarded the guidelines in a matter that may lead to consumer confusion and give Tesla an unfair market advantage,” the letter dated October 17 reads. “We have therefore also referred this matter to the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection to investigate whether these statements constitute unfair or deceptive acts or practices.”

Tesla did not respond to a request for comment.

The automaker’s lawyers did, however, push back against NHTSA’s request, according to the correspondence released by PlainSite. Tesla lawyers argue in one letter that the company’s statements were neither “untrue nor misleading.”

“To the contrary, Tesla has provided consumers with fair and objective information to compare the relative safety of vehicles having 5-star overall ratings,” the letter from Tesla’s deputy general counsel.

The documents posted by PlainSite also showed NHTSA requested sales data on all Tesla vehicles produced since July 2016 with or without Autopilot, the automaker’s advanced driver assistance system. The agency also issued subpoenas to Tesla ordering it to produce information on several crashes, including a January 25, 2019 crash in San Ramon, Calif. The subpoenas requested information about the vehicle, its owner, history and videos and images related to the crash and were to be sent to NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigations.

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