Hyundai’s New Rear-Seat Reminder Is Actually a Little Different from Nissan’s and GM’s

Hyundai Rear Occupant Alert

How many alerts do you need to remember that you’ve left your child in the back seat? Several, according to Hyundai, which is set to become the third automaker to install rear-occupant alert technology. But whereas similar systems in General Motors and Nissan vehicles monitor whether rear doors have been opened and closed, Hyundai’s new Rear Occupant Alert uses sensors that detect movement in the rear seat.

Hyundai Rear Occupant Alert

If someone is detected in the back, when the driver exits the vehicle a message reading Check Rear Seats displays on the center instrument cluster. And if the driver leaves the vehicle, the system will then honk its horn, flash its lights, and send a notification to the driver’s smartphone via Hyundai’s Blue Link connected-car system.

Hyundai is rolling out Rear Occupant Alert in select 2019 vehicles. GM introduced its own Rear Seat Reminder in the 2017 GMC Acadia and has since been expanding it across several Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, and GMC models. In August, Nissan announced it would add the Rear Door Alert to the 2018 Pathfinder, with other models to follow. Both GM’s and Nissan’s systems monitor the rear doors for activity, and both display a reminder message on the instrument cluster as the driver is exiting the vehicle. GM’s emits a series of chimes, while Nissan’s can chirp the horn. Both can be deactivated. And Hyundai’s will be able to be shut off as well, a company spokesman told Car and Driver.

Hyundai Rear Occupant Alert

To some, the idea of an alarm to remind you that there is a child in the back seat of your vehicle may seem a bit much. But statistics show that people have inadvertently left their kids in hot cars and trucks. More than 800 children have died from heat-related causes in cars in the United States since 1990, and in 55 percent of those cases parents said they were unaware their child was in the vehicle, according to the advocacy group Kids and Cars. Politicians have taken note. In July, legislation was introduced in the U.S. House and Senate that would require automakers to install rear-seat alert systems.

Called the Helping Overcome Trauma for Children Alone in Rear Seats (HOT CARS) Act, the legislation has made some traction in the House and has been duly applauded by several safety groups. But the Auto Alliance, a trade group representing a dozen major automakers, has expressed skepticism, arguing that most parents of young children don’t buy new cars, it would take two decades for the new technology to reach all vehicles, and greater public awareness is a more immediate need.

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2017 Ford Fusion Hybrid Tested: Expectations Met

2017-Ford-Fusion-Hybrid-PLACEMENT

Among the Ford Fusion hybrid’s biggest changes for 2017—besides a mild cosmetic update—was the addition of a new range-topping, luxurious Platinum trim level. That version elevates the car to a new level with the inclusion of a special leather interior and practically every option available on lesser Fusion hybrids. The Fusion hybrid tested here, however, is not the Platinum. READ MORE ››

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2017 Ford Fusion Hybrid – Instrumented Test

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A Tale of Two 2.0-Liters: Comparing the Turbo Four in Honda’s New Accord and the Civic Type R

2018 Honda Accord 2.0T Sport2018 Honda Accord 2.0T Sport2018 Honda Accord 2.0T Sport2018 Honda Accord 2.0T Sport2018 Honda Accord 2.0T Sport2018 Honda Accord 2.0T Sport2018 Honda Accord 2.0T Sport2018 Honda Accord 2.0T Sport2018 Honda Accord 2.0T Sport2018 Honda Accord 2.0T Sport2018 Honda Accord 2.0T Sport2018 Honda Accord 2.0T Sport2018 Honda Accord 2.0T Sport2018 Honda Accord 2.0T Sport2018 Honda Accord 2.0T Sport2018 Honda Accord 2.0T Sport2018 Honda Accord 2.0T Sport2018 Honda Accord 2.0T Sport2017 Honda Civic Type R2017 Honda Civic Type R2017 Honda Civic Type R2017 Honda Civic Type R2017 Honda Civic Type R2017 Honda Civic Type R2017 Honda Civic Type R2017 Honda Civic Type R2017 Honda Civic Type R2017 Honda Civic Type R2017 Honda Civic Type R2017 Honda Civic Type R2017 Honda Civic Type R2017 Honda Civic Type R2017 Honda Civic Type R2017 Honda Civic Type R2017 Honda Civic Type R2017 Honda Civic Type R2017 Honda Civic Type R2017 Honda Civic Type R2017 Honda Civic Type R2017 Honda Civic Type R2017 Honda Civic Type R2017 Honda Civic Type R2017 Honda Civic Type R

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A Tale of Two 2.0-Liters: Comparing the Turbo Fours in Honda’s New Accord and the Civic Type R

2018 Honda Accord 2.0T Sport

Honda Accord buyers may think they’ve outgrown cars like the Civic Type R, but for 2018, the Accord sedan shares more engine parts with that millennial-baiting hot hatch than with anything else in the Honda lineup.

Lift the hood of the 2017 Civic Type R and the 2018 Accord 2.0T, and you find nearly identical turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-fours, both part of the new Earth Dreams family. Granted, they may not look the same: One has an engine cover in snazzy red and carbon fiber, with HONDA proudly embossed in contrasting silver letters; the other is generic black plastic. But beyond their displacement, nearly everything that makes up a modern engine is shared: the exhaust manifold built into the cylinder head, the air-to-air intercooler, the sodium-filled exhaust valves, variable exhaust-valve lift and timing (VTEC), intake and exhaust camshaft phasing, a two-piece water jacket, the turbo’s electric wastegate, and pistons with internal cooling channels. The 9.8:1 compression ratio is equal on both cars (the Accord’s engine runs less boost, thereby avoiding devastating knock when burning regular gas).

How, then, can the same engine feel snappy and high-strung in the world’s fastest front-wheel-drive production car around the Nürburgring, yet refined and smooth in a mid-size family sedan?

2017 Honda Civic Type R

Chief powertrain engineer Terunobu Kunikane told us that a major differentiating part is the Accord’s smaller-diameter turbocharger. While this lowers the relative peak pressure, the Accord’s turbo spools quicker because there’s less inertia. The charged air also hits the turbine vanes at a sharper angle, which increases the amount of force on the vanes, helps provide quicker throttle response, and increases torque at lower revs.

2017 Honda Civic Type R

Indeed, low-inertia turbos work magic. The Accord 2.0T maxes out its 273 lb-ft at only 1500 rpm, at which point the Type R is generating about 115 lb-ft. At 2500 rpm, the Type R reaches its 295 lb-ft peak following a dramatic surge (thank you, turbocharger) between 1000 rpm and 2500 rpm. But whereas the Accord’s torque fades after 4000 rpm, the Type R’s four-cylinder hangs in until 4500 rpm and then floods the driver with horsepower. At just above 4000 rpm, both engines churn out more than 200 horsepower (208 in the Accord and 225 in the Type R), and both reach peak power output at 6500 rpm. The Accord’s peak of 252 horsepower, however, is no match for the Type R’s 306. And for extra fun, the Type R’s 7000-rpm redline is a few hundred higher.

2018 Honda Accord 2.0T Sport

Turbos aren’t the whole story. The Type R has higher-flow fuel injectors that Kunikane said are designed primarily for a “heavy spray,” whereas the Accord injectors have a wider range of flow rates. With less oxygen in the cylinders due to the lower boost pressure, the Accord’s engine sips less fuel, hence the Accord’s estimated highway rating of 30-plus mpg (with the manual transmission) versus the Type R’s 28 mpg. Aggressive software tuning and required high-octane fuel are the Type R’s finishing touches. Honda also added a balance shaft to the Accord’s engine to quell second-order vibrations. Presumably the Type R driver likes the extra vibrations.

Naturally, these similarities and minor changes had us wondering. Could, or rather, should there be an Accord Type R? Kunikane smiled and offered no further explanation. We hope that’s an engineering feat he’ll tell another day.

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Mo’ Leaf: Nissan Reveals More Details about the Leaf NISMO Concept

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Mo’ Leaf: Nissan Reveals More Details about the Leaf NISMO Concept

Nissan Leaf NISMO concept

Nissan has revealed more details about the Leaf NISMO concept that it will formally unveil this month at the Tokyo auto show. The hot-looking electric hatch previews a sportier Leaf variant that, rumors say, will reach production before the end of the decade.

Notably, the Leaf NISMO concept features a host of handsome exterior additions that spice up the 2018 Leaf’s styling. Aggressive front and rear fascias, split-spoke wheels, and side skirts provide the Leaf NISMO concept with an additional sense of dynamism that the standard Leaf lacks. The NISMO concept’s body kit isn’t merely for looks: Nissan notes that the pieces have been designed to reduce aerodynamic lift. Inside, the NISMO concept features red accents to separate it from the run-of-the-mill Leaf.

Nissan Leaf NISMO concept

Accompanying the visuals are a sport-tuned suspension, stickier tires, and revised electronics that Nissan claims alter the electric motor’s powerband. The company, however, makes no mention of output gains beyond the standard car’s 147 horsepower and 236 lb-ft of torque.

Although still a concept, the Leaf NISMO represents an exciting production prospect that has the potential to prove that relatively affordable electric vehicles also can be fun to drive.

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What the Killers Left Us: Tracing the Saint Francis Dam Disaster in a 2017 Porsche 911 Turbo S

2017 Porsche 911 Turbo S

William Mulholland was a ditch digger turned emperor, an Irish immigrant who presided over the transformation of Los Angeles from a dusty backwater settlement to the tail that wags the golden bear. Monterey Bay had been the first port of major import in California, and its namesake city was its first capital. San Francisco and Sacramento grew up as a result of the Gold Rush; the former was a debarkation point for the gold fields of the western Sierra, and the latter—at the crotch of the gold-bearing American River and the bay-connected Sacramento—thrived first on the comings and goings of those bound for golden glory, then as the state capital, profiting from the goings-on of governing what became the most populous state in the union. Los Angeles, though? Everybody knew that was nowhere.

The Owens River

The Owens River in 2008. Its parched valley was once an agricultural idyll. Its purloined waters filled the Saint Francis Reservoir via the Los Angeles Aqueduct.

The semi-arid strip trapped between the Transverse Ranges and the Pacific was barely livable, with only the Los Angeles River to keep its thirst slaked. Its harbor, now one of the primary economic engines of California, was too shallow for any serious shipping without dredging. Because of its lack of habitable area owing to a paucity of fresh water, the City of Angels seemed to be doomed to its status as a town of little consequence. As the chief engineer of the Bureau of Water Works and Supply, Mulholland, with the aid of some of L.A.’s most prominent men, cajoled, connived, and some would say outright stole the water rights from farmers up in the Owens Valley, a remote area of agricultural land sandwiched between the majestic Eastern Sierra and the Inyo Mountains. In 1928, after having paved the way for a modern metropolis that dictates much of the way America thinks, eats, shops, listens, and views the West Coast, Mulholland’s seemingly unstoppable rise came to a shattering halt up on San Francisquito Creek.

San Francisquito Creek

In the heat of the summer, San Francisquito Creek is a completely unassuming trickle through a desert canyon northeast of Los Angeles.

In the Los Angeles that Mulholland irrigated, a mid-century Eden built on the back of bustling aerospace, entertainment, and petroleum industries, Johnny von Neumann, an Austrian émigré, began selling Ferry Porsche’s little Volkswagen-based sports cars via his Competition Motors shop. Porsche has often regarded California as its most important market in the world, and von Neumann’s shop was the beachhead from which that market sprang. East Coast importer Max Hoffman’s idea for a stripped-down, open 356 found a home here, and there are few cars more emblematic of the Golden State’s salad days as the world’s automotive epicenter than the beloved Speedster.

The area’s affluence, scenery, and obsession with the automobile all came together with the weather, which encouraged year-round cruises to the beach or blasts through the area’s numerous canyons. If Porsche’s literal home lies on the Swabian autobahn, Southern California played nearly as important a role in its development, standing as a finishing school with laureates including everything from the 356 to the Cayenne to the car I hustled up San Francisquito Canyon, a Miami Blue 2017 911 Turbo S.

1978 Porsche 930

The Porsche 930, first in a line of 911s to wear the Turbo badge.

Conceived to homologate the 934 and 935 race cars for FIA groups 4 and 5 during the 1970s, Porsche’s original Turbo was venerated for its astonishing performance during an era when there wasn’t much performance to be had. It was also derided as a tricky-to-drive widowmaker. With the GT2 and GT3 models taking over as the hirsute, race-bred monsters of the line in the 1990s, the Turbo has gradually become a more friendly car, even as its performance numbers push into the rarefied air of all but the most exalted supercars. It’s a car as safe as milk for a Hollywood producer buried deep in his iPhone, yet ostentatious enough to let the masses know he spent plenty of money.

2017 Porsche 911 Turbo S

Its benefits and/or negative ramifications aside, the Los Angeles Aqueduct is a hugely impressive piece of engineering. As is the current 911 Turbo S.

Some 35 miles northeast of Hollywood, in the mountains south of the dry Antelope Valley, the Santa Clara River rises up at the eastern edge of the Angeles National Forest. Just before little Acton, the Santa Clara is joined by the Aliso Canyon fork, and west of the town, the tributaries roll in one after another, feeding the river as it flows west toward Ventura. Mulholland had his eye on one tributary in particular: San Francisquito Creek. Designed to hold Owens Valley water from the Los Angeles Aqueduct in reserve, as well as to generate power for the city to its southwest, the Saint Francis Dam was a 205-foot-high edifice holding back 38,168 acre-feet of water, a thumb in the eye of an ecosystem seemingly bent on thwarting mass human habitation of the L.A. basin. With its western side built atop an old landslide, the detection of which was beyond the scope of 1920s equipment, the dam stood for only two years.

Compared with Shasta, Oroville, Folsom, New Melones, Friant, and Trinity—major California dams that followed it during the golden age of Western dam building—Saint Francis held back a relatively small volume of water. In contrast, Northern California’s Shasta Dam impounds 4,552,000 acre-feet of Sacramento River water, creating the largest reservoir in the state. If drained, Lake Shasta could cover an area the size of Connecticut with more than a foot of water. In comparison, the capacity of Saint Francis Reservoir would have about the same effect on an area comparable to San Francisco. Still, as its residents will proudly tell you, San Francisco ain’t exactly nothin’, and when unleashed at three minutes to midnight on March 12, 1928, Saint Francis’s 12-billion-odd gallons carved a devastating path to the sea.

Crews and area residents had been concerned with leaks along the structure’s western abutment, prompting Mulholland himself to come out for an inspection on the day of the collapse. While the old ditch tender judged that that section of the dam would require further work, he declared the dam safe. Within 24 hours, the Owens River water held at San Francisquito Creek would reach the Pacific at Ventura, more than 50 miles away.

St. Francis Dam Tombstone

The “tombstone” segment of St. Francis Dam after the structure’s failure.

On some heavenly plane, the simple friar from Assisi surely wept as the dam that bore his name gave way, given the cost in human lives. It’s not known exactly how many people perished in the disaster, but estimates place the death toll between 400 and 600. As a man of nature, however, Saint Francis would appreciate the area of the dam site as it stands today. For years, San Francisquito Canyon Road ran right alongside the location of the mammoth structure’s collapse. In 2005, torrential rains washed out that section of the rural highway, leading authorities to establish a new right of way less prone to the ill effects of elemental whim. The old section is unceremoniously blocked off with a couple of Jersey barriers, with no sign to mark the significance of what lies beyond.

St. Francis Dam Disaster Site

Beyond the Jersey barriers lie the remains of San Francisquito Canyon Road’s old right of way, as well as the dam disaster site.

Hop over them, amble down, and marvel at the work that 12 short years of human noninterference can do. In places, the two-lane blacktop isn’t even visible. Thickets of desert scrub have grown up around and through the pavement; a layer of silty soil has washed over it. In other spots, teenagers with aerosol cans and shotguns have left their marks on signs and asphalt. You have to know you’re looking to find remnants of the dam off to your left, and even then, it’s a guessing game without having viewed recently annotated photographs. The “tombstone” section of the dam, the portion left standing upright until it was dynamited in 1929, is well into its return to the soil. Toothlike concrete protrusions from its edge are the only clue that man was somehow involved in this reshaping of the landscape.

St. Francis Dam Tombstone

The tombstone today. It was dynamited a year after the dam’s collapse, and you wouldn’t recognize it unless you knew what you were looking for.

After a hike back up the decommissioned stretch of road to the car, back down San Francisquito Canyon the Porsche and I went, eyeing the canyon walls for evidence of the scouring that 12 and a half billion gallons of water gave it 89 years ago, back toward the Santa Clara River, into Santa Clarita, now a a bedroom metropole with a population of nearly 182,000—as big as Los Angeles itself was during the first decade of the 20th century. At a stoplight, a man in a sano lifted and besnorkeled Toyota Land Cruiser rolled down his window and said, “I like your ride.”

“Thanks, man. I like yours, too.”

“I’ve got one too, an ’09 Turbo.”

In 2009, you could still get a 911 Turbo with a manual transmission. A millennial Porschephile friend groused about the new Turbo S in dismissive internetese: “No manual, no care.” He drives a 912E, the bastard offspring of the ’70s G-model 911 and the four-cylinder 914 2.0. With the mid-engined 914 ending production and the 924 still a year out, the 912E—conceived as a stopgap for the 1976 model year—was too slow to live and too rare to die. Long scoffed at by 914 guys and 911 nerds alike, an E, like pretty much anything air-cooled these days, can now cost real money. It is, after all, the last Porsche to be produced with a pushrod valvetrain. A 912E with a 1970s slushbox in front of its engine sounds like an absolutely abysmal proposition, but in the Turbo S, the car is so completely ruled by technology that a third pedal would feel anachronistic. Porsche’s precise, lively psychic warrior of a dual-clutch box absolutely suits the character of the car.

2017 Porsche 911 Turbo S

Alongside State Route 126.

If you want elemental, buy a classic, one where you feel the crack of the carburetor’s throat under the ball of your foot. Where the steering is an unboosted, kinetic delight. Where the whole thing is a contraption to be bent to your will, to be cajoled and manhandled into doing your bidding. If you want all that with a warranty, buy a motorcycle. The kind man at the Harley-Davidson store will happily sell you a brand-new air-cooled vehicle with a purposefully mechanical transmission, a chatty clutch, and the requirement of your utmost attention. Meanwhile, the Turbo S devoured San Francisquito Canyon Road with a speed and alacrity that would exhaust a young man on Aprilia’s techno-wizard RSV4 sport bike. In the Porsche, I did little but dart my eyes from entry to apex to exit to entry to apex to exit until the road ran out of entries, apexes, and exits.

Yet the fallacy inherent in writing off the Turbo S as a soulless confab of computer-whiz gimcrackery is that it communicates. You want to dismiss it out of hand as a car for Beverly Hills plastic surgeons too dumb to buy a high-winding GT3, but you’d do so at your own peril. The front end natters away when you need it to, not as isolated as the early Carreras of the 991 generation. Press the PDCC button, for Porsche Dynamic Chassis Control. Depress it. It doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of difference. Twist the knob on the steering wheel to Sport, and it just does everything a little more quickly, though not necessarily better. The Turbo S is as it is, an implacable 205-mph rocket sled with a narration track at the helm, and changing its drive mode seems to change its character not a whit.

2017 Porsche 911 Turbo S

On the other side of Castaic Junction, where State Route 126 branches off from Interstate 5, a valley filled with farms and dotted with small towns carries the Santa Clara toward the sea. Piru, Santa Paula, Fillmore, and Saticoy were all swept up in the disaster’s path, the canyon’s 120-foot wall of water having broadened into a menacing freshwater tide. State Route 126 cuts right down the floodplain, and the Porsche excelled here, too, without whimper or complaint when the going got trafficky. On the straight highway sections, it rolled along pleasantly, as any other car would, its 580 horsepower wholly irrelevant. There were no tramlining histrionics, no unhappy low end of the powerband, no balkiness from the high-performance transmission. The Turbo S is as well behaved as an Accord. It’s hard to reconcile its docile and forgiving nature with the old 930’s reputation as a killer—one that spawned lawsuits against Porsche in the 1980s—just as it’s hard to imagine the desolate, windblown Owens Valley as an agricultural paradise. Or San Francisquito Canyon filled with water behind a dam whose remnants are very nearly part of the natural landscape at this point.

Pressed for time, I didn’t exactly get to the mouth of the Santa Clara. I parked at the marina in Ventura for a moment, just north of the spot where the lifeless, formless jumble of rubble and bodies poured out into the Pacific. Music was playing. People were enjoying drinks as the evening summer sun hung low over the water. A light coastal mist lent the proceedings an ethereal, silver-gold glow. Indignation took over for a moment, and I thought to myself, “How can you guys party when almost 90 years ago, this place was littered with the dead, killed by the hand of a power-mad autodidact engineer bent on remaking the very fabric of this state?”

2017 Porsche 911 Turbo S

Of course, my rage was was a bit silly and impotent. Our culture, our infrastructure were built on the backs of the dead: men, women, and children who died in massacres or of disease brought across oceans. Men and women who died of old age in their beds. High steelworkers who fell to their doom. People killed in war and people killed by freak happenstance. To stave off death by starvation and thirst in inhospitable environs, they built aqueducts and planted acreage. To defend against death on the road, they added seatbelts and sensors and airbags, used materials more efficiently and effectively, and sent power to more wheels. When the money to be made and the glory to be earned is too good to resist, as it is in Los Angeles, as it is for Porsche, the resultant engineering astounds. And sometimes it kills. Humanity fumbles on, hoping that somehow, nobody ever actually disappears completely, optimistic that one day, science or faith will make that hope a reality.





A week before I made my journey from the dam’s ruins to the sea, the United Kingdom announced that no new automobiles powered by internal combustion alone would be sold on its shores after 2040, which followed France’s announcement that they’d do away with petroleum-burning new cars within the same time frame. Surely, an announcement from Germany on the same topic is due within the next few years, and with Europe’s big players on board, as well as China’s heavy push toward electrification, it may be that 911 Turbo is well into late middle age as a nameplate. Or, given the Teutonic propensity toward unhinging model names from reality, perhaps they’ll just keep calling the most powerful, luxurious, all-wheel-drive electric 911s Turbos.

Below the dam site, the reaction turbines of old Powerhouse #2 are still spinning big generators, still churning out 46 megawatts of electricity courtesy of Owens Valley water. One of the first casualties of the dam’s collapse, the electrical plant was quickly rebuilt following the debacle. And as long as enough snow falls in the Sierra Nevada to keep water flowing through the aqueduct, the future 911s of Los Angeles, the city that made Porsche, will owe some of their electrons to the man who made the city itself possible.

Dam-Disaster-Porsche-911-Turbo-S-REEL

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What the Killers Left Us: Tracing the Saint Francis Dam Disaster in a 2017 Porsche 911 Turbo S

2017 Porsche 911 Turbo S2017 Porsche 911 Turbo S2017 Porsche 911 Turbo S2017 Porsche 911 Turbo S2017 Porsche 911 Turbo S2017 Porsche 911 Turbo S2017 Porsche 911 Turbo S2017 Porsche 911 Turbo S2017 Porsche 911 Turbo S2017 Porsche 911 Turbo S2017 Porsche 911 Turbo S2017 Porsche 911 Turbo SWhat the Killers Left Us: Tracing the Saint Francis Dam Disaster in a 2017 Porsche 911 Turbo SWhat the Killers Left Us: Tracing the Saint Francis Dam Disaster in a 2017 Porsche 911 Turbo SWhat the Killers Left Us: Tracing the Saint Francis Dam Disaster in a 2017 Porsche 911 Turbo SWhat the Killers Left Us: Tracing the Saint Francis Dam Disaster in a 2017 Porsche 911 Turbo SWhat the Killers Left Us: Tracing the Saint Francis Dam Disaster in a 2017 Porsche 911 Turbo SSt. Francis Dam CollapseSt. Francis Dam Flood

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“A Tesla Crash, but Not Just a Tesla Crash”: NTSB Issues Final Report and Comments on Fatal Tesla Autopilot Crash

Tesla-Fatal Crash
According to a key member of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), automakers may want to slow the rollout of automated features until they have a better understanding of how these new technologies are interacted with by human drivers, who still carry responsibility for monitoring the road even when they’re in use.

That suggestion comes alongside the release of the NTSB’s final report on a fatal Tesla Model S crash involving the company’s Autopilot feature. (The agency had previously released an abstract and summary of the report on September 12; this is the comprehensive analysis.) Conclusions in the 53-page report are consistent with findings issued last month, which indicated that a truck driver’s failure to yield combined with a Tesla driver’s overreliance on Autopilot to cause a fatal crash along a Florida highway on May 7, 2016, which killed the Model S driver, Joshua Brown.

The final report is augmented with written comments from board member Christopher A. Hart, who compared the present struggle to meld human and machine in passenger cars to those experienced during the introduction of automation in the aviation industry a generation ago. Although decades have passed, he commented, the auto industry hasn’t learned from aviation’s mistakes.

“They learned from experience that automation ‘because we can’ does not necessarily make the human-automation system work better,” Hart wrote, referring to the aviation industry. “That resulted in an evolution toward human-centric automation, in which the objective was improving the overall performance of the human-automation system. This crash is an example of what can happen when automation is introduced ‘because we can’ without adequate consideration of the human element.”

Hart’s comments struck at the core of a quandary that, from its outset, has essentially split the nascent autonomous-technology industry in two. Some companies, such as Ford and Waymo, believe the intertwining of human drivers and self-driving systems is so fraught with problems that they have forgone the development of advanced driver-assist features in favor of designs that rid cars of traditional controls like steering wheels and brake pedals.

“This crash is an example of what can happen when automation is introduced ‘because we can’ without adequate consideration of the human element.”

—Christopher A. Hart, NTSB

For the likes of General Motors, Audi, and Tesla, which have made plans that include keeping humans in the driving loop, the complexity of how best to bring together humans and automated features is well known. While each has designed ways to ensure that humans remain engaged in driving while automated features are enabled, the NTSB report makes it clear that arduous work remains in readying these systems for the road. As these features get better over time, there’s a disquieting prospect that humans behind the wheel could actually do a worse job of driving.

“People are very bad at monitoring automation,” Deborah Bruce, investigator in charge of the NTSB’s Tesla Autopilot investigation, told Car and Driver. “When it’s doing what it’s designed to do, then it’s not calling attention to itself. There’s decades-long research and history going back to [monitoring] nuclear power plants [that show] we’re poor at automation. It’s an attention task, and we are not good at that.”

A photo taken during the NTSB investigation shows damage to the trailer involved in the fatal Tesla Motors crash.

A photo taken during the NTSB investigation shows damage to the underside of the trailer involved in the fatal Tesla Model S crash.

Given those limits in human capability, the NTSB recommended that manufacturers develop methods for monitoring whether drivers are paying attention that are better than steering-wheel sensors that drivers merely need to touch. Hart termed those “inadequate.” Because driving is an inherently visual task, preferred methods might include inward-facing cameras that track driver eye movement, a feature already in use in systems such as  General Motors’ new Super Cruise.

Among the NTSB’s further recommendations, the federal agency said automakers should add system safeguards that ensure automated systems are used in the conditions for which they are designed. Autopilot is intended for use on divided highways, but Brown used the feature on U.S. 27A in Williston, Florida, which is designed to permit the sort of crossing traffic that ultimately allowed a tractor-trailer hauling blueberries to pull into Brown’s path. Brown had driven for 6.7 miles with the Autopilot feature engaged prior to impact.

“You can certainly look and say this was a Tesla crash,
-but through our investigation we’re finding
-it’s not just a Tesla crash.”

—Deborah Bruce, NTSB

Like the investigation carried out by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration before it, the NTSB’s probe into the Tesla crash was a landmark case involving the first known death of a driver who had engaged a Level 2 automation system, one that can control steering, acceleration, and braking functions with an expectation that humans are monitoring the broader driving environment and ultimately responsible for vehicle operations.

The final report comes at a time when Congress is considering legislation that would ease the regulatory path for automakers in deploying self-driving vehicles and on the heels of the introduction of a revised federal automated-vehicle policy that removes a prior request that manufacturers submit a voluntary safety assessment of their technology.

NTSB investigators noted that the automaker cooperated with its investigation and helped distill data from the car’s systems into insights the board may not have otherwise had access to. Further, they noted that although this incident involved a Tesla, the issues at hand are systemic throughout the industry.

“You can certainly look and say this was a Tesla crash, but through our investigation we’re finding it’s not just a Tesla crash,” Bruce said. “It might have been they were the first one, but it could have been anybody, based on the fact that humans are operating these vehicles.”

Tesla Autopilot

Still, Tesla may have sowed confusion about the capabilities and limitations of the system with the name Autopilot. There’s growing concern within the NTSB and more broadly among safety advocates that automakers aren’t properly educating drivers on the nuances of these systems and that the wide assortment of brand-specific terminology is bewildering.

“Adding to the problem is the moniker ‘Autopilot,’ ” Hart wrote in his supplemental comments. “In aviation, airline pilots know that even when the autopilot is controlling their airplane, the pilots still play a crucial role. Joe and Suzy Public, on the other hand, may conclude from the name ‘Autopilot’ that they need not pay any attention to the driving task because the autopilot is doing everything.”

Hart’s comments were supported by board chairman Robert Sumwalt. The NTSB is a federal agency independent of the Department of Transportation that conducts crash investigations and makes recommendations on safety improvements; it does not hold regulatory power.

Tesla Motors could not be reached for comment on the NTSB’s final report. When the board issued its findings and recommendations last month, a spokesperson said: “We appreciate the NTSB’s analysis of last year’s tragic accident and we will evaluate their recommendations as we continue to evolve our technology. We will also continue to be extremely clear with current and potential customers that Autopilot is not a fully self-driving technology and drivers need to remain attentive at all times.”

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