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Board Meeting: Collision Between a Car Operating With Automated Vehicle Control Systems and a Tractor-Semitrailer Truck, Near Williston, Florida, May 7, 2016 - Opening Statement
Robert L. Sumwalt
NTSB Boardroom and Conference Center

​Good morning and welcome to the Boardroom of the National Transportation Safety Board.

I am Robert Sumwalt, and I’m honored to serve as the Chairman of the NTSB. Joining me today are my colleagues on the Board, Member Christopher Hart, Member Earl Weener, and Member Bella Dinh-Zarr.

Today, we meet in open session, as required by the Government in the Sunshine Act, to consider the May 7, 2016, collision between a car operating with automated vehicle control systems and a tractor-trailer truck near Williston, Florida.

As you will hear today, a 2015 Tesla Model S, was traveling eastbound on US Highway 27A. A truck traveling westbound was making a left turn across the eastbound lanes, onto a side street. The Tesla’s automation did not detect – nor was it designed to detect – the crossing vehicle.

The Tesla struck the side of the semitrailer then crossed underneath, shearing off the car’s roof. Tragically, the driver -- the sole occupant of the car -- died in the crash.

On behalf of my colleagues on the Board and the entire NTSB staff, I would like to offer our sincerest condolences to the driver’s family and friends. Please know that the NTSB’s purpose in this investigation is to learn from what happened, so that others don’t go through similar tragedies.

I think it’s important to clear up a possible misconception. The automobile involved in this collision was not a self-driving car.

Although it did have what the car manufacturer calls an “autopilot mode” that will drive the car without direct driver input, this car was not designed to be a self-driving car.

This car was what the SAE International and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) calls a partially automated vehicle – that’s Level Two on a Zero to Five scale.

There’s a lot of talk out there about self-driving cars. It’s true that some companies are experimenting with and testing self-driving cars, but there are no self-driving cars on the market today. To be clear, you can’t buy a production model self-driving car today from any automaker. Anyone who says you can is misleading you, and anybody who leaves that impression is leaving the wrong impression.

It’s important to make that clear, given all the messages out there about self-driving cars. This is a fast-changing field, but I want the public to understand the limits of what’s available to them today.

That said, this was the first known case of a highway fatality in a vehicle operating with this level of, or higher levels, of automated control systems.

As you will hear today, this vehicle’s driver-assistance features were not intended for use under all circumstances, and what’s more, they were not intended for use on all roads.

These operational limitations played a major role in this collision. The question of whether the driver should be able to use the system outside of its intended operating environment will figure prominently in today’s discussions.

Automation requiring human supervision is not a new topic to the NTSB. Over the years, we have learned many lessons about the introduction of automation in other modes of transportation.

Tesla calls its system “Autopilot.” In aviation, even for an aircraft on autopilot, the pilot is always responsible for monitoring the system to ensure it’s doing what it’s supposed to be doing. Likewise, for a car being operated with this level of automation, the driver is responsible for monitoring the driving environment.

Simply put, today’s automation systems augment, rather than replace, human drivers. Drivers must always be prepared to take the wheel or apply the brakes.

Make no mistake, the safety potential of self-driving cars is staggering:

An estimated 94% of highway deaths are due to human error. A world of perfect self-driving cars could eliminate tens of thousands of deaths and millions of injuries per year.

But it’s a long road from partially automated vehicles to self-driving cars.

And until we get there, somebody still has to drive.

Now Managing Director Dennis Jones… if you would kindly introduce the staff.