A Tesla Model 3 that crashed into the side of a tractor-trailer in Delray Beach, Florida, killing the driver, was operating on the self-driving feature known as Autopilot at the time of the collision, federal investigators have found.

In its preliminary report of the March 1 crash, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NTSB) said that driver Jeremy Banner, 50, engaged the Tesla’s Autopilot 10 seconds before the crash. He had his hands on the steering wheel for two seconds after engaging Autopilot and eight seconds before colliding with the side of a tractor-trailer.

The truck was crossing the southbound lanes of Highway 441 from the private drive of an agricultural facility with the intention of turning left onto the northbound lanes. This maneuver put the truck in the Tesla’s path and Mr. Banner struck the side of it going 68 mph.

The car’s data showed that neither Autopilot nor Mr. Banner attempted to slow down or make an evasive maneuver before the crash.

The underride crash sheared the entire roof off the Tesla, killing Mr. Banner on impact. The car continued to travel along the highway for about a quarter of a mile before coming to a stop.

The crash was eerily similar to a 2016 crash that killed 40-year-old Joshua Brown in Williston, Florida, which was the first-ever deadly crash involving a semi-automated or self-driving system of any kind. Mr. Brown’s Tesla Model 5 was on Autopilot when it crashed into the side of a tractor-trailer that failed to yield while making a left turn onto a divided highway.

The NTSB has investigated and continues to probe other crashes involving Tesla vehicles because the autopilot/self-driving systems are not well understood outside the industry and “entirely unregulated by U.S. safety standards,” according to Car and Driver.

Mr. Banner’s deadly Tesla crash underscores two major highway safety issues that continue to pose unique challenges to lawmakers and regulators: Underride crashes and self-driving or autonomous vehicles.

A bi-partisan group of legislators introduced the Stop Underrides Act of 2017, a proposal to strengthen rear-underride guards on heavy vehicles and require underride guards on the sides of large commercial vehicles as well.

Although both rear- and side-underride crashes continue to kill hundreds of motorists in the U.S. every year, the measures proposing better guard regulations have floundered on Capitol Hill. The trucking lobby and its posse of legislators argue that side-underride guards would be ineffective, heavy, and costly to trucking operations. Tests, however, show that side-underride guards would reduce fatalities and mitigate injuries in 90 percent of collisions involving tractor-trailers and smaller passenger vehicles.

Washington DC’s WUSA Channel 9 says that advocates for the proposed underride law hope it will get its first committee hearing later this year, but it’s expected to be a steep climb under the current anti-regulation administration.

The U.S. is leading the world in self-driving car technology and has completed millions of miles on interstates and city roads – far more than any other country. But it too faces a complex set of legal, safety, and regulatory challenges before vehicles become fully self-driving nationwide.

Much of the progress self-driving vehicles make pivots on safety issues like those raised by the Tesla underride crashes.

Some critics say many states are moving too quickly to put self-driving cars on the road, their responsibility to ensure public safety.

In addition to performance issues, some technology experts warn that self-driving cars remain vulnerable to hacking attempts. For instance, the MIT Technology Review posits that self-driving vehicles “will have to anticipate and defend against a full spectrum of malicious attackers wielding both traditional cyberattacks and a new generation of attacks based on so-called adversarial machine learning.”

Safety concerns are also sometimes tethered to ethical choices, and whether the AI in autonomous vehicles will ever be capable of making an ethical distinction between hitting, say, the driver of a runaway vehicle or a pedestrian in the crosswalk, or between killing an animal in the road instead of running over a sign or onto the shoulder of the road.

Additional sources:
Parents frustrated as efforts to stop deadly underride crashes stall on Capitol Hill
Bill that would mandate side underride guards on trailers reintroduced in Congress

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