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Tesla Autopilot system was on during fatal California crash, adding to self-driving safety concerns


A Tesla Model 3 electric car that was part of a fatal Southern California crash last week had the companys Autopilot system activated when it careened into an overturned truck in the middle of the night, the Associated Press reported Friday.

The May 5 crash near Los Angeles is the latest of several incidents playing into safety concerns for Tesla's self-driving cars. It was the fourth U.S. death involving the Autopilot self-driving car system, the newswire wrote. And it is sure to further complicate Tesla's already-troubled relationship with transportation safety regulators.

Public affairs staff from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the California Highway Patrol did not respond to requests for further information Friday afternoon. Tesla did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.

The investigation into the May 5 crash marks the 29th investigation the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has initiated into crashes involving Tesla vehicles, according to information previously disclosed by the agency.

The investigation is likely to complicate Tesla's attempts to gain broader market acceptance for its self-driving vehicles. There are concerns that the automated driving system ― which relies on an advanced array of cameras and radar sensors placed on the outside of the vehicles ― is not ready yet.

A coalition of competing automakers criticized Tesla's vehicles as not truly autonomous because they still require an active driver. Tesla's vehicles rely on an elaborate array of cameras and radar sensors to remain aware of the vehicles surroundings, as opposed to the lidar sensors employed by some other electric vehicles.

Tesla's website and safety manuals do not describe Autopilot as a fully-autonomous system, and emphasize that drivers must be paying attention and ready to intervene.

The car is supposed to sense whether there is a person in the driver's seat and act accordingly. But there have been several recent instances in which people have been caught allowing the car to drive completely on its own. On Tuesday the California Highway Patrol arrested a man who was sitting in the back seat of his Tesla as it drove down the highway, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

There have been numerous instances in which apparently distracted drivers failed to control the vehicle at a critical moment. In a 2018 incident, the driver of a Tesla model X SUV died in a crash near Mountain View, Calif., after accessing a video game on his phone. In another case a Tesla's sensing cameras failed to identify a truck's white side against a brightly lit sky.

In one incident in mid-April, a Tesla crashed into a tree in a suburb outside of Houston and it took firefighters four hours to put out the flames, at which point they concluded that neither of the car's two occupants had been in the driver's seat at the time of the crash. A Tesla executive later broke with that official account and claimed there was a person in the driver's seat. A National Transportation Safety Board spokesman later said Tesla was "working with" investigators but is "not a party" to it, marking a break with typical procedure that suggests a strained relationship between Tesla and regulators.

Published : May 15, 2021

By : The Washington Post · Aaron Gregg