Death on Autopilot: California Crash Victim's Tesla Drove Itself Into Barrier

Steph Willems
by Steph Willems
death on autopilot california crash victims tesla drove itself into barrier

Buried in the hubbub surrounding this week’s New York auto show was a drama unfolding in the wake of a Tesla Model X crash on US-101 in Mountain View, California, not far from Tesla’s Palo Alto HQ.

The SUV, driven by 38-year-old Apple software engineer Wei Huang, collided head-on with a concrete divider where the southbound freeway splits at the Highway 85 junction. The collision obliterated the SUV to the A-pillars and sparked a fire. Huang later died in hospital.

Crashes occur for a myriad of reasons and Teslas aren’t immune to reckless drivers, medical emergencies, and any number of other conditions that can lead to a crash. However, at the time of impact, Huang’s vehicle was operating on Autopilot, the company announced.

In an earlier blog post, Tesla said, “We have never seen this level of damage to a Model X in any other crash.” The extreme damage done to the victim’s vehicle, Tesla said, was due to an earlier crash that crushed the concrete divider’s aluminum crash attenuator, thus rendering the safety feature useless. It provided a photo taken the day before the fatal March 23 crash, showing that the feature had not been repaired.

After retrieving the vehicle’s digital logs, the company announced on Friday that the Model X was driving with its semi-autonomous Autopilot system engaged. It’s the same system used by the driver of a fatal 2016 crash in Florida, though in the wake of that crash Tesla updated the system to prevent driver misuse. Now, the vehicle emits warnings to compel drivers to keep their hands on the wheel. After a certain number of unheeded warnings, the system stops the car before disengaging.

Before this update, some drivers viewed their Teslas as fully autonomous vehicles when in Autopilot mode. Videos abound of drivers reading books and performing other distracted activities as their Tesla sails merrily along.

In the Florida incident, neither the vehicle nor the driver noticed a brightly lit semi trailer crossing the highway in front of the Model S ( visible for 10 seconds, according to the National Transportation Safety Board), and the driver’s hands were not on the wheel at the time of impact.

In its most recent update on the Mountain View crash, Tesla wrote:

In the moments before the collision, which occurred at 9:27 a.m. on Friday, March 23rd, Autopilot was engaged with the adaptive cruise control follow-distance set to minimum. 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. The driver had about five seconds and 150 meters of unobstructed view of the concrete divider with the crushed crash attenuator, but the vehicle logs show that no action was taken.

Huang did not apply the brakes before the impact, nor did the vehicle’s automatic emergency braking system engage. Teslas operating on Autopilot use radar backed up by cameras to gauge the vehicle’s surroundings, and the end of a concrete barrier presents a slim cross-section for the system to identify. Still, it is a clear obstacle. What’s more puzzling, however, is how a vehicle driving in Autopilot mode got to where Huang’s Model X crashed.

It’s assumed, based on Tesla’s description of actions taken leading up to the crash, that Huang was travelling in the left lane of the 101 and was not attempting to exit onto the 85. To get to the point of impact, Huang’s car would have had to cross the painted line to the left of the vehicle. That line starts as a regular solid white marker, branching into two to split the “fast” lane from the exit lane as it approaches the barrier. If he intended to maintain his position in the left lane of the 101, Huang’s Model X would have had to drift over this line to impact the barrier.

Google Streeview images taken in late 2017 show the solid white line missing a lot of paint as it approaches the barrier and crash cushioning device (then in place). Whether this had anything to do with the crash is unknown.

A revealing tidbit of information comes from The Mercury News, which reports Huang made several complaints to Tesla about his vehicle’s Autopilot system. Huang’s family said he contacted the company on several occasions after his Model X veered off the road while Autopilot was engaged. Apparently, at least one of the incidents occurred on that same stretch of the 101.

These story elements have gone unaddressed by Tesla, which is reportedly in an all-out push to reach its Model 3 production target before the end of March. The automaker ended its most recent blog post by mentioning the lack of crash barrier at the impact site, then diving into Autopilot’s safety record.

Both the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and National Transportation Safety Board have opened investigations into the Mountain View crash. We’ll keep you updated.

[Source: The New York Times] [Images: Tesla, KGO-TV]

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  • Incautious Incautious on Apr 02, 2018

    A totally preventable accident. What really makes me mad is, idiots like him are putting innocent people lives in danger all because we've become Elon's test rats. Oh and by the way Here's a fix Tesla so it never happens again.IF YOUR HANDS ARE NOT ON THE WHEEL THE CAR WON'T GO. Cut the drive system, as there is no reason what so ever to ever ever take your hands off the steering wheel when driving.

  • Flipper35 Flipper35 on Apr 02, 2018

    Maybe a car next to him encroached into his lane and the car moved over just as they got to the barrier?

  • MaintenanceCosts We hear endlessly from the usual suspects about the scenarios where EVs don't work as well as gas cars. We never hear the opposite side of the coin. From an EV owner (since 2019) who has a second EV reserved, here are a few points the "I road trip 1000 miles every day" crowd won't tell you about:[list][*]When you have a convenient charging situation, EV fueling is more convenient than a gas car. There is no stopping at gas stations and you start every day with a full tank.[/*][*]Where there are no-idling rules (school pickup/dropoff, lines for ferries or services, city loading, whatever else) you can keep warm or cool to your heart's content in your EV.[/*][*]In the cold, EVs will give you heat from the second you turn them on.[/*][*]EVs don't care one bit if you use them for tons of very short trips. Their mechanicals don't need to boil off condensation. (Just tonight, I used my EV to drive six blocks, because it was 31 degrees and raining, and walking would have been unpleasant.)[/*][*]EVs don't stink and don't make you breathe carcinogens on cold start.[/*][*]EV maintenance is much less frequent and much cheaper, eliminating almost all items having to do with engine, transmission, or brakes in a gas car. In most EVs the maintenance schedule consists of battery coolant changes and tire maintenance.[/*][*]You can accelerate fast in EVs without noisily attracting the attention of the cops and every passerby on the street.[/*][/list]
  • MaintenanceCosts Still can't get a RAV4 Prime for love or money. Availability of normal hybrid RAV4s and Highlanders is only slightly better. At least around here I think Toyota could sell twice the number of vehicles that they are actually bringing in at the moment.
  • Tree Trunk Been in the market for a new Highlander Hybrid, it is sold out with order time of 6 months plus. Probably would have bit the bullet if it was not for the dealers the refuse to take an order but instead want to sell from allotment whether it fits or not and at thousands over MRSP.
  • AKHusky The expense argument is nonsense. My mach e was $42k after tax credit. Basically the same as similarly equipped edge. And it completely ignores that the best selling vehicles are Rams, F150s, and Silverados, all more expensive that a bolt, MAch e or ID4. As an owner, I'd say they are still in second car territory for most places in the country.
  • Johnster I live in a red state and I see quite a few EVs being purchased by conservative, upper-class Republicans (many of them Trump-supporters). I suspect that it is a way for them to flaunt their wealth and that, over time, the preference for EVs will trickle down to less well-off Republicans.
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