Attorney David I. Fuchs
Sep. 20, 2018
It was only a matter of time before technology caught up with the predictions of self-driving vehicles. Several automakers have come out with self-driving capabilities in the last few years. In the time since Tesla debuted its vehicles’ advanced autopilot features, however, there has been more than one accident involving Tesla’s self-driving hardware and software.
The latest fatal accident on March 23rd, 2018, involved a Tesla Model X vehicle. It took the life of the Tesla driver and caused a fire that shut down two lanes of a highway in Mountain View, California. The ongoing car accident investigation into the incident raises questions about the safety of Tesla’s autopilot features.
The very first reports on the fatal Tesla crash did not confirm how the accident occurred or whether the driver had the autopilot features engaged at the time. Four days later, on March 27th, Tesla released investigative information stating it did not know what caused the accident and that data showed 200 successful Tesla Autopilot trips on the exact same stretch of road where the fatal crash occurred. Tesla stated in its first report that the reason for the crash’s severity was that the city had failed to replace a damaged highway safety barrier.
Further developments and press releases regarding the March 23rd Tesla accident disclosed that the deceased driver was 38-year-old Walter Huang, who worked for Apple as a software engineer. Tesla confirmed on March 30th that Walter had engaged Autopilot and was using adaptive cruise control, with follow-distance on the minimum setting. Tesla asserted that the driver was in the wrong for evidently ignoring several warnings earlier in the drive.
By April 2018, federal investigators removed Tesla Inc. from the crash investigation, citing the reason as Tesla “releasing investigative information before the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) confirmed it.” Tesla breached its party agreement by releasing this premature information – something the NTSB says can lead to “incorrect assumptions about the cause of the crash.” Removing an investigative party like this is rare, but can happen in sensitive cases.
In the six months since the fatal crash, investigators from different organizations have been working to pinpoint exactly why the accident occurred. An official report from the NTSB stated that, in the three seconds before the vehicle collided with the highway attenuation, the Tesla Autopilot feature accelerated the SUV’s speed from 62 miles per hour to 70.8 miles per hour. The driver had the Autopilot feature set to 75 miles per hour at the time of the accident.
The NTSB report also confirmed that the driver did not have his hands on the wheel for six seconds leading up to the collision, based on vehicle data. Although Tesla had previously reported that it had no record of Walter Huang complaining about the vehicle’s Autopilot feature, an ABC News release stated that Walter had previously taken his vehicle to the Tesla dealership, complaining that his car had a way of veering toward the barrier his vehicle ultimately hit.
As investigators learn more about the accident and the events in the seconds leading up to it, it is possible that the fault may come down to faulty or unsafe self-driving technologies on Tesla’s part. Tesla has already had to pay millions of dollars in a previous settlement regarding the safety of its Autopilot feature.
This case cited the death of Walter Huang, as well as the death of another Tesla driver in autopilot mode, and alleged that Tesla had engaged in fraud by concealment and broken various consumer protection laws. The family of the deceased accident victim has yet to announce whether they plan on filing a lawsuit against Tesla for the accident.