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TECHnalysis Research Blog Extra

January 20, 2017
Tesla Cleared of Fault in NHTSA Crash Probe

By Bob O'Donnell

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced on Thursday that Tesla was cleared of wrongdoing that could have led to a recall of their Model S cars with Autopilot software. The 6-month long investigation was triggered by the well-publicized death of a Model S driver whose car slammed at full-speed into a tractor trailer truck that was crossing the highway in front of it.

The somewhat surprising verdict relieves Tesla of a potential cloud hanging over it, but additional commentary from NHTSA suggests the topic of autonomous and semi-autonomous driving will be closely watched for some time. In particular, there are still questions about the definitions of autopilot vs. semi-autonomous driving vs. fully autonomous driving. The lingering concern voiced by NHTSA officials, as well as other car makers and industry observers, is that most consumers don’t understand the differences, nor the implications for what each of those terms mean, particularly with regard to the amount of attention that is required of the driver.

NHTSA acknowledged that the Tesla owner’s manual does point out that the Autopilot features on a Model S are semi-autonomous and require that the driver maintain complete control of the car even when they are engaged. However, the NHTSA report also pointed out that many consumers don’t necessarily read those manuals, so the necessary information is “not as specific as it could be.” In fact, I’d be willing to bet that if you polled even Tesla owners—let alone the general driving public—about what autopilot features can do—very few would say that they require the driver to maintain complete control.

The crux of the dilemma is that once drivers do give up control of a vehicle, studies find that it can take 15 seconds or more to really recognize a situation and take control again. The NHTSA report suggested that the driver in this incident had at least 7 seconds with which to respond because the Autopilot functioned in the manner in which it was supposed to (hence, the lack of a recall) and yet the driver didn’t respond. Unfortunately, we’ll never know truly know what happened in this particular case, but legitimate concerns about semi-autonomous driving capabilities still exist in my mind, despite the NHTSA ruling.

On a big picture level, there are clearly potential safety benefits from some of the semi-autonomous driving features that Tesla has implemented on the Model S. Indeed, the NHTSA report even cited a reduction in crashes because of those features. Nevertheless, because of the confusion around what Autopilot and semi-autonomous driving really mean, I’m afraid this won’t be the last we’ll be reading about this issue.

Here's a link to the column:

Bob O’Donnell is the president and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, LLC a market research firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.

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