Tesla doesn’t know if its car was on autopilot during a fatal crash

The car rammed into a highway barrier and caught fire in Mountain View, California, on Friday.
March 28, 2018, 5:20pm

Tesla still doesn’t know what caused the fatal crash of one of its new Model X cars and can’t say whether the car was on autopilot.

The car rammed into a highway barrier and caught fire in Mountain View, California, on Friday. Without knowing what caused the crash, Tesla blamed the poorly maintained barrier and said its cars drive on autopilot on that same stretch of road over 200 times every day without incident. With little information coming from the company, federal authorities announced their investigation into the crash on Tuesday.

Neither the company nor authorities have released the driver’s name, who died from his injuries following Friday’s crash.

Tesla’s autopilot mode can help drivers steer and avoid objects in a car’s path just in case a driver loses focus at the wheel. It’s not a fully autonomous feature but rather a computer-assisted mode, designed to keep people safer.

Tesla, however, is preemptively defending its autopilot technology. The company issued a press release Tuesday that detailed a finding from the National Transportation Safety Board last year that the feature reduced crashes by almost 40 percent. Ironically, that data point came from another investigation into a fatal 2016 autopilot crash, which took place while the driver may have been watching a Harry Potter movie .

Friday’s crash was so severe because the crash barrier where the accident occurred had been crushed in a prior crash and not replaced, according to Tesla. The car was so badly mangled that Tesla hasn’t been able to retrieve the crash data, which would allow the company to figure out whether the car was in autopilot mode. It’s working with authorities to do so.

"We have never seen this level of damage to a Model X in any other crash," Tesla said in a blog post on its site after the crash.

If the Model X’s battery catches fire, it’s designed to burn slowly to allow the occupants enough time to get out of the car. The driver was out of the car by the time the fire posed a risk, Tesla said.

Tesla’s stock price took a hit after the National Transportation Safety Board announced its investigation into the crash. The company, whose stock dropped about 6 percent as of press time on Wednesday, already had investors worried over fewer Model 3 cars shipping than the company had aimed.

Tesla did not respond to a request for comment. The company’s blog post, however, noted that no further details would be released until the investigation concludes.

Meanwhile, federal authorities are investigating another crash involving new driving tech. In Tempe, Arizona, an Uber in self-driving mode fatally struck a pedestrian on March 19. It’s believed to be the first fatal accident involving a self-driving car.

Cover image: A white Tesla Model X parked inside the Tesla store in Stanford Shopping Center on February 13, 2018, Palo Alto, California. (Photo by Yichuan Cao/NurPhoto/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)