Tesla crash: Model X was in Autopilot mode, firm says

The news could amplify worries over the reliability of automated-driving systems, but Tesla says they're still the safer option.

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Edward Moyer is a senior editor at CNET and a many-year veteran of the writing and editing world. He enjoys taking sentences apart and putting them back together. He also likes making them from scratch. ¶ For nearly a quarter of a century, he's edited and written stories about various aspects of the technology world, from the US National Security Agency's controversial spying techniques to historic NASA space missions to 3D-printed works of fine art. Before that, he wrote about movies, musicians, artists and subcultures.
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3 min read
Remains of the charred Tesla Model X

Tesla's Autopilot assisted-driving feature was on during an accident that left a man dead.

Dean C. Smith via Twitter

Tesla's Autopilot feature was on during the recent fatal crash of a Tesla Model X car, the company said late Friday, potentially increasing concerns over the safety of automated-driving technologies.

In a post on its website, the electric-car maker said computer logs retrieved from the wrecked SUV show that Tesla's driver-assisting Autopilot technology was engaged and that the driver doesn't appear to have grabbed the steering wheel in the seconds before the crash.

The car's 38-year-old driver died after the vehicle hit a concrete lane divider on a Northern California freeway and caught fire. The accident happened March 23.

Three days earlier, an Arizona pedestrian was killed by a fully self-driving car being tested by Uber with a ride-along human safety driver, raising questions about whether automated technologies can be trusted.

Nearly every carmaker worldwide, including , BMW, and , has plans to offer self-driving cars in the next few years. Proponents say the vehicles are safer because their software and sensors let them "see" and react to surroundings faster than humans can. But critics say the cars may not be road ready and that the process shouldn't be rushed.

On its website, Tesla, led by CEO Elon Musk , says Enhanced Autopilot includes features like Autosteer, Emergency Braking and Side Collision Warning. It adds that "every driver is responsible for remaining alert and active when using Autopilot, and must be prepared to take action at any time." The site also says all Tesla cars include hardware that in the future will allow them to go beyond Enhanced Autopilot to offer "full self-driving capability at a safety level substantially greater than that of a human driver."

In its Friday post, Tesla said the crashed Model X's computer logs show that the driver's hands weren't detected on the steering wheel for 6 seconds prior to the accident. It said they also show the driver had "about five seconds and 150 meters of unobstructed view of the concrete divider" before the crash but that "no action was taken."

The company cited various statistics in defending Autopilot in the post and said there's no doubt the technology makes vehicles safer than traditional cars.

"Over a year ago," the post said, "our first iteration of Autopilot was found by the US government to reduce crash rates by as much as 40 percent. Internal data confirms that recent updates to Autopilot have improved system reliability."

"Tesla Autopilot does not prevent all accidents -- such a standard would be impossible -- but it makes them much less likely to occur," the post reads. "It unequivocally makes the world safer for the vehicle occupants, pedestrians and cyclists."

It's not the first time Autopilot has been involved in a fatal collision. In regard to a 2016 accident, the US National Transportation Safety Board faulted the driver for "over-reliance on vehicle automation" but said that though the Autopilot system operated as designed, it didn't do enough to make sure drivers paid adequate attention.

Tesla said in the post that the driver in the recent crash had gotten several warnings at various times during the trip about the need to take control of the steering wheel. It also said the reason the accident was so serious is because the safety barrier on the concrete lane divider, designed to reduce impact, was damaged in an earlier accident and hadn't been replaced.

Tesla's business is having a difficult month, with unprecedented dips in stock prices fueled in part by the recent crash and by Model 3 production delays. On Thursday, the company recalled 123,000 Model S cars because of a faulty steering bolt.

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