Hold the Line: Video From Location of Deadly Tesla Crash Shows Weird Autopilot Behavior

Steph Willems
by Steph Willems

We all play amateur detective whenever a Tesla crashes or does something wonky while operating on Autopilot (or in its absence), and last week was no exception.

The death of Wei Huang following his Model X’s collision with a lane divider on California’s US-101 freeway in Mountain View prompted Tesla to issue two statements concerning the incident. In the second, the automaker admitted, after retrieving digital logs from the vehicle, that the vehicle was in Autopilot mode and that the driver did not touch the wheel in the six seconds leading up to the March 23rd impact.

Retracing the last few hundred yards of Huang’s journey on Google Streetview led this author to make a very obvious observation: that the paint marking the left-side boundary of the lane Huang was presumably driving in was faded and half missing as it approached the barrier. As it turns out, the condition of that not-so-solid white line caused another Tesla’s Autopilot to act strangely, but this time the driver corrected in time. He also has a video to show what happened.

Shantanu Joshi, who filmed the video and posted it to Reddit’s Tesla Motors forum (later to be picked up by Electrek), claims he travels down the same stretch of US-101 on his way to work every day.

After hearing about the crash, he decided to test his own car’s Autopilot on the section where the exit lane breaks off from the southbound US-101 and carries over to Highway 85. Joshi kept his car in the left lane of US-101, which is accompanied (on the left) by the 85 exit ramp leading up to the barrier.

“The results are kinda freaky,” Joshi said.

As seen in the video, the marker between these two lanes splits approaching the barrier, separating the exit lane from the left lane of US-101. That split grows wider as it approaches the barrier, but there’s a stark contrast between the paint on either side. On the US-101 side, the paint is, in many parts, barely there — especially at the beginning of the split. Meanwhile, the paint on the exit side is uniform.

As the two lanes diverge, Joshi’s Tesla follows the left-most lane marker, pulling the vehicle into what is not actually a lane and sending it on a collision course with the barrier. It seems the car’s sensors latched onto the most prominently painted line, and the lane-holding electronics ensured the vehicle charted this new course. On a fast-lane freeway journey, this may be the only spot capable of tricking Autopilot. However, it’s clearly a situation that can turn deadly if the driver’s attention is distracted for just a few seconds.

Note that, after taking his hands off the wheel to record the video and allow the car to approach the split under Autopilot control, we can see and hear the Tesla emit a visual and audio warning a split second before Joshi retakes the wheel.

Huang’s family told local media that the victim had complained about his Model X veering off the road on the same stretch of highway, but didn’t offer further details. For its part, Tesla claims the victim never approached them with an Autopilot-related complaint, just a “navigation” one. This author will admit to being suspicious as to the nature of this vague navigation concern.

Both the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and National Transportation Safety Board have opened investigations into the crash, and Tesla says it’s cooperating fully. Without a preliminary report to go on, this video, coupled with the crash details already released by Tesla and local media, paints a pretty scary picture of why Tesla drivers can’t let their guard down.

[Image: Shantanu Joshi/ YouTube]

Steph Willems
Steph Willems

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  • Islander800 Islander800 on Apr 04, 2018

    I think a good wake-up call for Elon Musk would be a charge for criminal negligence leading to death. Why him? Because, as he is so eager to point out at every opportunity, these initiatives are all mandated from the very top of the company, and that would be Elon. This stuff is obviously NOT ready for prime time. To cynically and recklessly use his vehicles, his customers and the general public as guinea pigs for his "beta" testing, where "software errors" result in death, seems to me the definition of criminal negligence. And by the way, the same goes for regulatory officials that gave the green light to this idiocy on the public highways.

  • Master Baiter Master Baiter on Apr 05, 2018

    An "autopilot" system that can kill you inside of six seconds is less than worthless. . .

  • Theflyersfan I wonder how many people recalled these after watching EuroCrash. There's someone one street over that has a similar yellow one of these, and you can tell he loves that car. It was just a tough sell - too expensive, way too heavy, zero passenger space, limited cargo bed, but for a chunk of the population, looked awesome. This was always meant to be a one and done car. Hopefully some are still running 20 years from now so we have a "remember when?" moment with them.
  • Lorenzo A friend bought one of these new. Six months later he traded it in for a Chrysler PT Cruiser. He already had a 1998 Corvette, so I thought he just wanted more passenger space. It turned out someone broke into the SSR and stole $1500 of tools, without even breaking the lock. He figured nobody breaks into a PT Cruiser, but he had a custom trunk lock installed.
  • Jeff Not bad just oil changes and tire rotations. Most of the recalls on my Maverick have been fixed with programming. Did have to buy 1 new tire for my Maverick got a nail in the sidewall.
  • Carson D Some of my friends used to drive Tacomas. They bought them new about fifteen years ago, and they kept them for at least a decade. While it is true that they replaced their Tacomas with full-sized pickups that cost a fair amount of money, I don't think they'd have been Tacoma buyers in 2008 if a well-equipped 4x4 Tacoma cost the equivalent of $65K today. Call it a theory.
  • Eliyahu A fine sedan made even nicer with the turbo. Honda could take a lesson in seat comfort.
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