On March 1, a Tesla Model 3 was headed down a divided highway in Florida. The driver turned on the Autopilot system, which uses computers, cameras and long-range radar to avoid crashes. Almost as soon as the driver turned on the Autopilot and took his hands off the wheel, he crashed into a semi-truck. The car went under the trailer and killed the 50-year-old driver.
The crash is still under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). However, the agency confirmed initial data that the Autopilot feature was turned on just 10 seconds before the crash. Also, the car was going 68 mph in a 55-mph zone. And, the driver's hands were not on the steering wheel at the time leading up to the crash.
Neither the driver nor the Autopilot tried braking or attempted to avoid hitting the trailer.
Tesla says that the Autopilot system is only designed to help drivers. It is not an autonomous driving system. Drivers must pay attention and be ready to take over driving at any sign of trouble.
But this driver took his hands off the steering wheel immediately after activating the Autopilot system.
Tesla also says that drivers have used the Autopilot system to travel over 1 billion miles. "When used properly by an attentive driver who is prepared to take control at all times," the company said, "drivers supported by Autopilot are safer than those operating without assistance."
Yet this crash was strikingly similar to another Tesla Model 3 crash in 2016. In that crash, another man using Autopilot was killed when his car went beneath a semi-truck. Like in the more recent accident, the Autopilot did not appear to notice the large truck. After the 2016 crash, Tesla says it made changes so the Autopilot's radar would work better.
Former head of NHTSA surprised there have been no recalls
The Associated Press interviewed a vice president of advocacy for Consumer Reports magazine who was the acting head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in 2014. He told the AP that he is surprised NHTSA didn't declare the Autopilot a defective product after the 2016 crash.
"Their system cannot literally see the broad side of an 18-wheeler on the highway," he commented.
Tesla's message is that the Autopilot is only meant to help drivers, not to take over for them. But they named the product an "autopilot," which many people assume means just that. In any case, as these crashes and others show, the message may not be getting through to drivers.
If you or a loved one has been injured by a vehicle defect, discuss your situation with an experienced personal injury lawyer right away.