Tesla has confirmed that the driver of a Model X who was killed in a violent highway crash in Mountain View, California, March 23 had his hands off the wheel and the SUV’s Autopilot engaged for several seconds before slamming into a barrier at 70 mph.
Computer logs recovered from the wreckage show that Wei Huang, a 38-year-old Apple engineer and father of two, had his hands off the steering wheel for six seconds as he traveled along highway 101 toward a carpool lane on 85. A highway barrier separated the interchange, and the automated Tesla vehicle drove straight into it going 70 mph.
“The driver had received several visual and one audible hands-on warning earlier in the drive and the driver’s hands were not detected on the wheel for six seconds prior to the collision,” Tesla said in an update on the crash. ”The driver had about five seconds and 150 meters of unobstructed view” of the concrete highway divider, “but the vehicle logs show that no action was taken.”
Tesla emphasized that the crash was so severe because the crash attenuator fronting the highway divider, which was supposed to absorb the impact of a collision, had been hit at 70 mph by an alleged drunk driver in a Toyota Prius just 11 days before Mr. Huang’s crash. The impact of that collision drastically shortened the crash attenuator and eliminated its cushion, but the driver walked away with minor injuries. Mr. Huang’s collision with the attenuator was essentially like hitting a brick wall.
Mr. Huang wasn’t the first person to die in a Tesla equipped with Autopilot. Joshua Brown, 40, of Canton, Ohio, died in May 2016 when his semi-autonomous Tesla Model S failed to apply its brakes as a tractor-trailer turned left in front of it. The May 7 crash occurred on a divided highway in Williston, Florida. Mr. Brown’s death was the first to occur in a vehicle equipped with either autonomous or semi-autonomous driving capabilities.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigated the Florida crash and faulted the “operational design” of the Tesla vehicle’s semi-autonomous driving technologies because they rely on driver input in certain situations, yet it cannot prevent drivers from fully relying on the vehicle to self-drive in all circumstances. In other words, Tesla’s self-driving capabilities can encourage drivers to let their guard down, opening the door to greater driver error.
The NTSB and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) are also investigating a Jan. 22 collision in Los Angeles involving a Tesla Model S that was on Autopilot when it collided with the back of a firetruck parked on the highway.