Tesla says autopilot was engaged at the time of a Model X fatal accident, which took place on March 23 in Mountain View, California. The company released a statement online late Friday after local news reported that the victim had made several complaints to Tesla about the vehicle's autopilot technology before the accident in which he died.
After recovering the logs from the crash site, Tesla confirmed that the autopilot was on, with Adaptive Cruise Control pitch control set to minimum. The company also said that the driver, identified as Apple engineer Wei "Walter" Huang, had his hands off the wheel and was not responding to warnings to regain control.
The driver had received several visual and audible hands-on warnings earlier in the ride, and the driver's hands were not detected on the steering wheel for six seconds prior to the collision. The driver had about five seconds and 150 meters of clear view of the concrete partition with the broken impact absorber, but the vehicle logs show that nothing was done.
The driver of the car, Huang, was directed south on the California route 101 when his Model X crashed headlong into the safety barrier section of a divider separating the carpool lane from the exit to the left. The front end of his SUV was torn apart, the vehicle caught fire, and two other cars crashed into the rear end. Huang was removed from the vehicle by rescuers and taken to Stanford Hospital where, according to Mercury News he died of injuries sustained in the crash. The National Traffic Safety Board (NTSB) has launched an investigation into the incident.
Tesla said the reason for the serious accident was that the damper had been crushed in a previous accident without being replaced. "We have never seen this level of damage to a Model X on another crash," the company said, repeating a comment released earlier this week.
In his statement, Tesla admits that autopilot is an imperfect system it considers much better than the alternative.
The Tesla autopilot does not prevent all accidents – such a standard would be impossible – but it makes them much rarer. It makes the world for the vehicle occupants, pedestrians and cyclists clearly safer.
Nobody knows about the accidents that did not happen, only about those who happened. The consequences of the fact that the public does not use the autopilot because it is not certain that it is less safe would be extremely serious. Worldwide there are about 1.25 million deaths in the automotive industry. Applying the current safety level of a Tesla vehicle would mean about 900,000 lives a year. We expect the safety level of autonomous cars to be 10 times safer than non-autonomous cars.
Huang's death occurred less than a week after a self-propelled Uber vehicle killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona, triggering a nationwide debate on the safety of autonomous cars. Tesla has been asking autopilot questions when a Florida driver died in a collision with a semi-trailer in 2016. The NTSB noted that most of the autopilot functioned as intended, but "gave the driver far more leeway to focus on anything but driving," which contributed to the accident. The NTSB also recently investigated an accident in January 2018 in which the driver of a Model S claimed to have used autopilot when the car crashed into a fire truck.