A life and death question for regulators: Is Tesla’s Autopilot safe?

Robin Geoulla had doubts about the automated driving technology equipped on his Tesla Model S when he bought the electric car in 2017.

“It was a little scary to, you know, rely on it and to just, you know, sit back and let it drive,” he told a U.S. investigator about Tesla’s Autopilot system, describing his initial feelings about the technology.

Geoulla made the comments to the investigator in January 2018, days after his Tesla, with Autopilot engaged, slammed into the back of an unoccupied fire truck parked on a California interstate highway. Reuters could not reach him for additional comment.

Over time, Geoulla’s initial doubts about Autopilot softened, and he found it reliable when tracking a vehicle in front of him. But he noticed the system sometimes seemed confused when faced with direct sunlight or a vehicle in front of him changing lanes, according to a transcript of his interview with a National Transportation Safety Board investigator.

He was driving into the sun before he rear-ended the fire truck, he told the investigator.

Autopilot’s design allowed Geoulla to disengage from driving during his trip, and his hands were off the wheel for almost the entire period of roughly 30 minutes when the technology was activated, the NTSB found.

The U.S. agency, which makes recommendations but lacks enforcement powers, has previously urged regulators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to investigate Autopilot’s limitations, potential for driver misuse and possible safety risks following a series of crashes involving the technology, some of them fatal.

“The past has shown the focus has been on innovation over safety and I’m hoping we’re at a point where that tide is turning,” the NTSB’s new chair, Jennifer Homendy, told Reuters in an interview. She said there is no comparison between Tesla’s Autopilot and the more rigorous autopilot systems used in aviation that involve trained pilots, rules addressing fatigue and testing for drugs and alcohol.

Tesla did not respond to written questions for this story.

Autopilot is an advanced driver-assistance feature whose current version does not render vehicles autonomous, the company says on its website. Tesla says that drivers must agree to keep hands on the wheel and maintain control of their vehicles before enabling the system.

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