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US regulators, Tesla called out for not further prioritizing safety

The NTSB placed blame on both parties, but also revealed the driver in a fatal crash was playing a video game and was not ready to take control.

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Tesla Model S interior

Tesla will likely face increased pressure over its Autopilot system.

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The National Transportation Safety Board on Tuesday delivered harsh criticism of Tesla and US regulators and their roles in the most recent fatal crash that involved the electric carmaker's Autopilot system.

According to Reuters reporting from the day's hearing, NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt slammed Tesla's lack of formal response regarding the deadly crash. Earlier Tuesday morning, the agency said Tesla hadn't submitted a formal response to safety recommendations in over two years -- far outside the 90-day window. Five other automakers involved in the recommendations all submitted appropriate documents.

Sumwalt went further to declare US regulators have performed "scant oversight" on partially automated driver assistance systems.

All of Tuesday's hearing concerned the 2018 crash that led to the death of Apple engineer Walter Huang. The engineer was driving his Tesla Model X in Mountain View, California, with Autopilot engaged, when the car crashed into a safety barrier at 70 mph. The hearing revealed Huang was likely playing a video game at the time, however. Data from his iPhone showed a word puzzle game was active during the time of the crash.

The NTSB said the forward collision warning did not alert Huang, and automatic emergency braking did not operate. Data also indicated Huang did not apply the brakes manually and there was no sign of steering movement at the time of the impact.

Tesla regularly notes it often reminds drivers that they must be prepared to retake control of the vehicle at a moment's notice. The NTSB said that's not enough: More robust driver-monitoring features for these kinds of systems are necessary -- something the agency recommended years ago.

The agency plans to once again strongly urge regulators to put recommendations in place to halt additional fatal crashes. The NTSB can merely make recommendations, while the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is the agency responsible for implementing them.

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Originally published Feb. 25.