Tesla Autopilot crash driver died "playing video game"

Photo: NTSB handout / family photo

Tesla calls it Autopilot, but it didn't help Walter Huang's Model X avoid the crash that killed him. Huang was playing a video game on his phone, according to a report issued by the National Transportation Safety Board, which is why he didn't notice it speeding up and veering into a concrete barrier. But it also wrote that more crashes are "foreseeable" if Tesla doesn't make changes to its driver-assist technology's design.

While approaching a paved gore area dividing the main travel lanes of US-101 from the SR-85 left-exit ramp, the SUV moved to the left and entered the gore. The vehicle continued traveling through the gore and struck a damaged and nonoperational crash attenuator at a speed of about 71 mph. The crash attenuator was positioned at the end of a concrete median barrier. As a result of the collision, the SUV rotated counterclockwise and the front body structure separated from the rear of the vehicle. The Tesla was involved in subsequent collisions with two other vehicles, a 2010 Mazda 3 and a 2017 Audi A4.

The Tesla’s high-voltage battery was breached in the collision and a postcrash fire ensued. On-scene witnesses found the Tesla driver in his seat with his lap/shoulder belt buckled. They removed him from the vehicle before it was engulfed in flames. The driver was transported to a local hospital, where he died from blunt-force trauma injuries. The driver of the Mazda sustained minor injuries, and the driver of the Audi was uninjured.

System performance data downloaded from the Tesla indicated that the driver was operating the SUV using the Traffic-Aware Cruise Control (an adaptive cruise control system) and Autosteer system (a lane-keeping assist system), which are advanced driver assistance systems in Tesla’s “Autopilot” suite.

The NTSB wants "car mode" to be on by default on phones; workplace rules prohibiting employees from using company-issued phones while driving; driver-assistance systems to detect and warn distracted drivers; and called for regulation of driver-assistance technology and "further evaluation" of Tesla Autopilot's safety.

The report also noted that a lithium fire presented unusual hazards to first responders--the car's battery was ruptured in the fiery crash--and that the California Highway Patrol and Department of Transportation failed to report and fix damage to the gore area into which the vehicle strayed.