Tesla in fatal California crash may have been in autopilot mode, officials say

A Tesla car involved in a fatal crash on a southern California freeway last week may have been operating on autopilot, according to the California highway patrol.

The 5 May crash in Fontana, a city 50 miles east of Los Angeles, is also under investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). It is the 29th case involving a Tesla that the federal agency has investigated.

In the Fontana crash, a 35-year-old man was killed when his Tesla Model 3 struck an overturned semi on a freeway about 2.30am. The driver’s name has not been made public. Another man was seriously injured when the electric vehicle hit him as he was helping the semi’s driver out of the wreck.

The state highway patrol (CHP) announced on Thursday that its preliminary investigation had determined the Tesla’s partially automated driving system “was engaged”.

But on Friday the agency walked back its previous declaration. “To clarify,“ a new statement said, “there has not been a final determination made as to what driving mode the Tesla was in or if it was a contributing factor to the crash.”

At least three people have died in previous US crashes involving the system.

The CHP initially said it was commenting on the Fontana crash because of the “high level of interest” about Tesla crashes and because it was “an opportunity to remind the public that driving is a complex task that requires a driver’s full attention”.

The federal investigation comes after the CHP arrested a man who authorities have said was in the back seat of a Tesla driving on Interstate 80 near Oakland with no one behind the wheel.

CHP has not said if officials have determined whether the Tesla in the I80 incident was on autopilot, which can keep a car centered in its lane and a safe distance behind vehicles in front of it. But it’s likely that either autopilot or full self-driving were in operation for the driver to be in the back seat. Tesla is allowing a limited number of owners to test its self-driving system.

Tesla, which has disbanded its public relations department, did not respond to an email seeking comment. The company says in owner’s manuals and on its website that both autopilot and full self-driving are not fully autonomous and that drivers must pay attention and be ready to intervene at any time.

Autopilot has had trouble dealing with stationary objects and traffic crossing in front of Teslas. In two Florida crashes, in 2016 and 2019, cars with autopilot in use drove beneath crossing tractor-trailers, killing the men driving the Teslas. In a 2018 crash in Mountain View, California, an Apple engineer driving on autopilot was killed when his Tesla struck a highway barrier.

Tesla’s system, which uses cameras, radar and short-range sonar, also has trouble handling stopped emergency vehicles. Teslas have struck several firetrucks and police vehicles stopped on freeways with their flashing emergency lights on.

In March, the NHTSA sent a team to investigate after a Tesla on autopilot ran into a Michigan state police vehicle on I96 near Lansing. Neither the trooper nor the 22-year-old Tesla driver was injured, police said.

After the Florida and California fatal crashes, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommended Tesla develop a stronger system to ensure drivers are paying attention, and limit use of autopilot to highways where it can work effectively. Neither Tesla nor the safety agency took action.

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