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Tesla driver using 'autopilot' system crashes into fire truck

Tesla Inc. should perhaps consider a different name for its Autopilot driver-assist system, since many people associate the term "autopilot" with a system that completely takes over for human beings.

In a statement after a recent car crash, Tesla stressed that its Autopilot system is "intended for use only with a fully attentive driver" with their hands on the steering wheel, ready to take over if something unexpected happens. Tesla calls the Autopilot an "advanced driver assistance system" that does not turn the car into an autonomous vehicle.

In other words, it may have some fancy collision detection and avoidance components, but it should be used just like cruise control. 

The National Transportation Safety Board is looking into a recent accident in which a driver expected his Tesla Autopilot to act, well, like an autopilot. The driver had the Autopilot system engaged and was not paying close attention when his car struck a fire truck that was parked in a highway emergency lane in the Los Angeles area. The Tesla was going 65 mph.

"Amazingly there were no injuries! Please stay alert while driving!" tweeted a union for the Culver City firefighters.

This is not the first time a Tesla driver has been involved in an accident while Autopilot was engaged. In 2016, a driver of the Model S was killed when his Autopilot failed to detect a semi-trailer that was crossing a divided road. The car went underneath the semi-trailer. The NTSB said the Autopilot system was a contributing factor in the wreck.

In another crash involving Autopilot, the driver said his Tesla left the roadway, suddenly accelerated, drove into a marsh and flipped over when he activated the system. In a statement regarding the allegations, Tesla said that "We ... have no reason to believe that Autopilot, which has been found by NHTSA to reduce accident rates by 40 percent, worked other than as designed."

The NTSB has not begun an official investigation into the crash involving the fire truck. The agency only does so in a handful of traffic crashes each year.

Tesla says it has taken steps to better educate drivers about the proper use of the Autopilot system.

Perhaps when the Autopilot and other advanced driver assistance systems are used properly, they can reduce traffic accident rates. That said, manufacturers can be held responsible for injuries caused by the foreseeable misuse of their products. Tesla and the other carmakers may need to do more than take steps to better educate drivers.

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