Tesla: Autopilot engaged before fatal California Model X crash

The Raw Data
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On Friday, Tesla, Inc. released a statement saying its autopilot semi-autonomous self-driving system was engaged before a fatal Model X accident in Mountain View, California on March 23. The driver, Wei Huang, died after the crash. Tesla said the system had produced multiple visual and one audible “hands-on” warning “earlier in the drive,” and that Huang’s hands were not on the wheel for six seconds prior to the collision with a concrete roadside barrier. Tesla said it was “incredibly sorry” to the driver’s family and friends for their loss. The company released a statement four days after the Model X crash, saying it had not yet recovered the sport utility vehicle’s logs. The company said its data showed Tesla drivers had driven the “same stretch of highway with Autopilot engaged roughly 85,000 times since Autopilot was first rolled out in 2015 and roughly 20,000 times since just the beginning of the year, and there has never been an accident that we know of.” A week after the crash, Tesla released another statement, indicating it had recovered the vehicle’s logs. Tesla then said, “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.”The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the California Highway Patrol (CHP) were investigating the accident. After Tesla’s statement, NTSB spokesman Chris O’Neil said, “In each of our investigations involving a Tesla vehicle, Tesla has been extremely cooperative on assisting with the vehicle data. However, the NTSB is unhappy with the release of investigative information by Tesla.” O’Neil added that NTSB’s “preliminary” report “generally occurs within a few weeks of completion of field work.”

The accident
The accident on Highway 101 occurred at 9:27 a.m. local time, according to Tesla. The Model X SUV caught fire after the accident. Tesla said, by witnesses’ accounts, “we understand there were no occupants still in the Model X by the time the fire could have presented a risk.” The highway crash attenuator the SUV hit had been damaged in a previous accident. An accident had occurred there 11 days prior, according to the CHP. ABC7 News did not say if the CHP indicated that accident caused the damage to the attenuator, which was apparent in photos posted by Tesla. Huang, 38, was an Apple engineer. His family said he had previously talked to his Tesla dealer about an issue while driving in Autopilot whereby his car steered towards the same barrier “7/10” times that he would drive on that road, according to ABC7 News. Huang’s brother, Will, said the dealer was unable to duplicate the issue.

Tesla’s autopilot system
Tesla’s autopilot system uses a series of cameras, ultrasonic sensors and radar along with software to drive the vehicle semi-autonomously under certain conditions. In the Tesla Model S owner’s manual, some of the conditions under which the autopilot system may be unable to function as intended include poor visibility, bright lights, narrow or winding roads, and mud, snow or ice on the sensors. The manual includes this warning: “It is the driver’s responsibility to stay alert, drive safely, and be in control of the vehicle at all times.” A survey of 625 German Tesla owners published in November 2016 found that 98 percent of respondents said they were “familiar with the car warnings that Tesla provides about how Autopilot is to be properly used.” Seven percent said “the name ‘Autopilot’ caused [them] to believe that the car is fully autonomous, meaning that it does not require the driver to be supervising the car.” Tesla said a review by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) published in January 2017 found that autopilot reduces crash rates by 40 percent. The NHTSA’s study included crash rates before and after autopilot had been installed, which were determined using air bag and mileage data from Tesla Model S and Model X vehicles. The crash rates after autopilot was installed included driving both with and without the semi-autonomous system activated. Tesla said autopilot has “improved further” since the study and that “perfectly prevent[ing] all accidents” is a standard that would be “impossible.”

Other fatalities involving self-driving vehicles
In 2016, a Tesla Model S crashed into a truck while in autopilot mode. In that accident, Tesla said “neither Autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied.” The NHTSA report concluded the driver should have been able to see the tractor trailer for at least seven seconds prior to the crash. After the accident, Tesla changed its autopilot software so the system would shut off for the remainder of the trip if a driver “fails to respond to the [system’s] alerts adequately,” according to the NHTSA. On March 18 in Arizona, an Uber self-driving vehicle hit and killed a pedestrian walking her bicycle across the street away from a crosswalk at night. Video of the incident shows neither the person sitting in the driver’s seat nor the self-driving system appeared to brake before the impact. Uber has not said what caused the accident.

Crash statistics
Tesla said, on average, there is a fatality once every 86 million miles in the U.S. across all vehicles from all manufacturers. Tesla said for its vehicles equipped with autopilot hardware, the number is one in every 320 million. It concluded, “if you are driving a Tesla equipped with Autopilot hardware, you are 3.7 times less likely to be involved in a fatal accident.” It did not provide total number of fatalities or miles driven. About a year ago, Tesla said it had four billion miles of driving data from its cars, not all with autopilot installed, according to Electrek. In 2016, 37,461 people died on U.S. roads, including pedestrians, bicyclists and motorcyclists, as well as automobile drivers and passengers, according to the NHTSA. The administration said 3.2 trillion miles had been driven in the U.S. in 2016.

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