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Tesla Driver in Autopilot Fatality Reported Problems

Updates into two crash investigations show drivers operating in hands-free mode
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New information released by federal safety authorities shows the drivers of two Tesla vehicles involved in separate fatal accidents had their hands off the steering wheel for several seconds prior to the crashes while their vehicles operated in the carmaker’s semi-autonomous Autopilot mode.

Walter Huang was killed on March 23, 2018, when his Model X crossover veered off a California highway at 70 mph and struck a barrier. Jeremy Banner died in a March 1, 2019, crash when his Model 3 sedan struck a semi-truck that ran a stop sign to cross a high-speed road in Florida.

The families of both drivers filed lawsuits last year against Tesla.

Previous Problems

Huang had frequently complained about having problems with Autopilot while traveling along the same section of highway where the crash occurred, according to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

Data taken from the Model X showed that on at least two occasions Huang had to override the Autopilot system to prevent it from inadvertently steering the vehicle off the road. One of the incidents happened four days before the fatal accident.

Hands-Off Operation

In the fatal crash, there was no evidence of braking or evasive action prior to impact. NTSB also found:

  • Autopilot had been engaged for the final 18 minutes and 55 seconds of the trip
  • The system did not detect driver-applied steering wheel torque during one-third of this time, including the final six seconds
  • One audio signal and two visual alerts were issued during the first few minutes in the last segment of Autopilot driving, all of them prompting Huang to put his hands on the steering wheel

In addition, Huang’s phone records show large data transmissions for a complex, multi-player game app called “Three Kingdoms” during the trip. It isn’t clear if he was playing the game at the time of the crash.

A public hearing to determine probable cause of the accident is scheduled for Feb. 25.

Florida Crashes

In the Florida crash, NTSB documents show Jeremy Banner had just engaged Autopilot and had his hands off the wheel for the final eight seconds of the trip.

The Model 3 was traveling at 68 mph. There was no indication of braking or evasive steering. A final report is due later this month.

The crash is similar to a 2016 Florida accident in which the driver of a Model S was killed. Tesla was cleared of any wrongdoing in that case.

The carmaker repeatedly has said that a driver must remain attentive with hands on the wheel while Autopilot is engaged. The system can steer, accelerate and brake a car automatically under certain but not all highway conditions.

But critics argue that the company is beta testing the technology in real world driving before it has been fully validated. They also contend that the Autopilot name is confusing, implying the system is fully autonomous, which it isn’t.

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