California Highway Patrol say autopilot was engaged before accident
A man behind the wheel of a Tesla who ended up in a fatal crash had previously posted videos and images of himself in the moving car without his hands on the wheel or his foot on the pedal while in autopilot mode.
California authorities have said that the car may have been using autopilot when it crashed. The incident took place on 5 May in Fontana, a city 50 miles east of LA, and is being investigated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Steven Michael Hendrickson, 35, died when his Tesla Model 3 hit an overturned semi on the freeway at around 2.30am.
Mr Hendrickson was a member of a Southern California chapter of a Tesla club and posted a number of images on social media of his vehicle.
A video on his Instagram account, showing him in the driver’s seat but with his hands off the wheel and his feet off the pedals, included the comment: “Best carpool buddy possible even takes the boring traffic for me.”
According to a GoFundMe page gathering funds for a funeral service, Mr Hendrickson had a wife and two children. The Tesla club wrote on Instagram: “Every time we spoke to him, he would light up talking about his kids and loved his Tesla. He was truly an amazing human being and will be missed!”
California Highway Patrol said on Thursday that the autopilot “was engaged” before the crash, in which another man was seriously injured as he was struck by the Tesla while he was helping the driver of the overturned semi get out of the vehicle.
CHP said they commented on the collision because of the “high level of interest” in crashes involving Teslas and because it was “an opportunity to remind the public that driving is a complex task that requires a driver’s full attention”.
But on Friday, the agency added: “To clarify, 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 previously died in crashes involving the automated driving system, which can ensure that the car stays in its lane and remains at a safe distance from other vehicles on highways.
Tesla says on its website that both autopilot and “Full Self-Driving,” now being tested by a limited number of Tesla owners, are not fully autonomous and that drivers must stay alert behind the wheel.
Autopilot has had issues with stationary objects and traffic crossing in front of the car. In two crashes occurring in Florida in 2016 and 2019, cars with Autopilot enabled drove beneath tractor-trailers crossing in front of the Teslas, killings its drivers.
Teslas have also hit several parked emergency vehicles such as fire trucks and police cars stopped on freeways with their lights on.
In a letter to the department of transportation on 1 February, the National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Robert Sumwalt wrote: “Because [the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration] has put in place no requirements, manufacturers can operate and test vehicles virtually anywhere, even if the location exceeds the [autonomous vehicle] control system’s limitations.”
He added: “Although Tesla includes a disclaimer that ‘currently enabled features require active driver supervision and do not make the vehicle autonomous,’ NHTSA’s hands-off approach to oversight of AV testing poses a potential risk to motorists and other road users.”
The Independent has reached out to Tesla for comment.