Tesla on autopilot sped up before fatal solo crash in March

Sean Reid
June 8, 2018

An update from the National Transportation Safety Board indicates that the driver of the Tesla (TSLA +1.9%) Model X that crashed into a highway barrier in a fatal accident on March 23 didn't have his hands on the wheel.

The NTSB's preliminary report states that all "aspects of the crash remain under investigation as the NTSB determines the probable cause, with the intent of issuing safety recommendations to prevent similar crashes". The electric vehicle's 400-volt lithium ion battery was breached and caught fire, according to the NTSB report. In that report, investigators said the car's Autopilot system actually increased speed in the moments leading up to the crash and didn't attempt to brake or steer clear of the barrier. Investigators say Huang's Model X was traveling with its Autopilot set to 75 miles per hour on US-101 when it veered left through the painted highway divider and struck a damaged highway barrier.

According to the NTSB, the vehicle was following another auto in front of it using Tesla's Autopilot system until about seven seconds before the impact. The driver, Walter Huang, died after being taken to the hospital.

Information from the Model X shows that Huang had engaged Autopilot four times during his 32-minute trip, including a almost 19-minute stint leading up to the crash.

At 4 seconds prior to the crash, the Tesla was no longer following a lead vehicle.

In the report released Thursday, the NTSB said the SUV was operating with traffic-aware cruise control and autosteer lane-keeping assistance engaged at the time of the crash. Its adaptive cruise control was set at 75 miles-per-hour.

In the minute leading up to the crash, investigators said Huang had placed his hands on the steering wheel three separate times, for a total of 34 seconds, but he didn't touch the steering wheel in the six seconds leading up to the crash. A spokeswoman referred to a company blog saying that a Tesla with Autopilot is far safer than vehicles without it. The attenuator had been damaged 11 days earlier in a previous accident and hadn't been repaired, according to NTSB.

Following CEO Elon Musk's announcement that the company should meet its Model 3 production goal of 5,000 cars per week this month (as well as a handful of other updates at the annual meeting), Tesla's stock price spiked 9.74% on Wednesday. That has lead some technology developers to focus on fully driverless technology, which requires nothing from passengers.

In January, a Tesla Model S sedan that may have been using Autopilot hit a parked firetruck on Interstate 405 near Los Angeles. "We have never seen this level of damage to a Model X in any other crash".

Federal investigators in May removed Tesla from the official investigation into the California crash after the automaker seemingly blamed the driver for the crash publicly.

The Tesla collided with a so-called crash attenuator, a device covering the concrete barrier that's created to absorb a vehicle impact to lower risks of damage and injuries.

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