Feds: Tesla Crashes Won’t Slow Self-Driving Push

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Washington – Federal regulators have not lost their enthusiasm for self-driving cars after a series of crashes involving Tesla vehicles that were operating with their automated driving system activated, the nation's top highway safety official said Wednesday.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator Mark Rosekind said in a speech at the Automated Vehicle Symposium in San Francisco on Wednesday that “no one incident will derail the Department of Transportation and NHTSA from its mission to improve safety on the roads by pursuing new lifesaving technologies.”

In prepared remarks released by the agency, Rosekind said “we know there will be incidents that occur with highly automated vehicles, and NHTSA will always be ready to use its authorities to investigate all aspects of vehicle safety and take whatever action is necessary.

“When something goes wrong, or a highly automated vehicle encounters an edge case — something it hasn’t been programmed to deal with — that data can be taken, analyzed, and then the lessons can be shared with more than the the rest of that vehicle fleet. It could be shared with all automated vehicles,” he added.

The comments as federal regulators prepare to unveil regulations for testing of fully automated cars this summer — and they follow what is believed to be the first death in a car engaged in a semi-autonomous driving feature.

Rosekind said Wednesday he could not comment “on any ongoing investigations” of crashes that have involved Tesla’s autopilot feature. “It would be inappropriate to prejudge the outcome until all the facts are analyzed,” he said.

Federal regulators say preliminary reports show the fatal Tesla crash occurred when a semitrailer turned left in front of the car that was in Autopilot mode at a highway intersection on May 7. Florida police said the roof of the car struck the underside of the trailer and the car passed beneath. The driver was dead at the scene.

“Neither Autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor-trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied,” Tesla said in a blog posting on June 30.

Preparations for the new rules are being closely watched by supporters and critics of the self-driving technology. Consumer groups have said the recent Tesla crashes should give regulators pause about the readiness of the self-driving car technology.

The Santa Monica, California-based Consumer Watchdog group said it drove a white truck that is similar to one that was involved in the fatal Tesla crash around the site of the symposium where Rosekind was speaking Wednesday to call attention to the dangers of rushing to approve the use of self-driving cars.

The truck had signs that read “stop” and “speed kills” to protest “the death of the first human driver due to an autopilot function that could not distinguish a white truck from a white sky.

The group called on Rosekind and U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx “not to issue industry-friendly guidelines, but to create a public process for greater safety.”

Rosekind said Wednesday that the Obama administration is planning to push ahead with the release of its proposed rules for self-driving cars this summer, however.

“I strongly believe that DOT and NHTSA are well-positioned to very soon unveil strong highly automated vehicle guidance that will lay the path to the safe deployment of lifesaving technologies,” he said.

Rosekind added that self-driving cars will ultimately make U.S. roads more safe because they will reduce the number of accidents that are caused by driver errors.

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Twitter: @Keith_Laing

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