Tesla says autopilot makes its cars safer. Accident victims say it kills.


Benjamin Maldonado and his teenage son were driving home from a football tournament on a California highway in August 2019 when a truck in front of them slowed down. Mr. Maldonado activated his turn signal and moved to the right. Within seconds, his Ford Explorer pickup was struck by a Tesla Model 3 traveling at around 60 miles per hour on autopilot.

A six-second video captured by the Tesla and the data it recorded shows that neither the autopilot – Tesla’s much-vaunted system that can steer, brake and accelerate a car on its own – nor the driver has slowed down the vehicle up to a fraction of a second before the crash. Jovani, 15, who was in the front passenger seat and not wearing his seat belt, was thrown from the Ford and died, according to a police report.

The accident, which took place six kilometers from Tesla’s main auto plant, is now the subject of a lawsuit against the company. It is one of a growing number of accidents involving autopilot that have fueled concerns about technology shortcomings and could call into question the development of similar systems used by rival automakers. And as cars take on more of the tasks previously performed by humans, the development of these systems could have major ramifications, not only for the drivers of these cars, but for other motorists, pedestrians and cyclists.

Tesla, founded in 2003, and its chief executive, Elon Musk, have been bold in challenging the auto industry, attracting dedicated fans and customers, and creating a new standard for electric vehicles with which others established auto makers matter. The company is worth more than several major automakers combined.

But accidents involving the autopilot could threaten Tesla’s reputation and force regulators to take action against the company. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has conducted about two dozen active crash investigations involving autopilot.

At least three Tesla drivers have died since 2016 in crashes in which the autopilot was engaged and failed to detect obstacles on the road. In two cases, the system did not brake for semi-trailers crossing highways. In the third, he did not recognize a concrete barrier. In June, the Federal Road Safety Agency released a list showing that at least 10 people have been killed in eight crashes involving autopilot since 2016. This list does not include the crash that killed Jovani Maldonado.

Tesla’s credibility has taken a hit, and some self-driving experts say it’s hard not to question other claims made by Mr. Musk and the company. He, for example, has repeatedly stated that Tesla is on the cusp of perfecting Full Self Driving, a technology that would allow cars to drive autonomously under most circumstances – something other auto and tech companies have. stated in years.

Mr. Musk and Tesla did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Autopilot is not an autonomous driving system. Rather, it is a suite of software, cameras and sensors intended to help drivers and prevent accidents by taking care of many aspects of driving a car, even changing lanes. Tesla executives have claimed that transferring these functions to computers would make driving safer, as human drivers are prone to errors and distractions, and are responsible for most of the estimated 40,000 fatal traffic accidents. that occur every year in the United States.

“Computers don’t check their Instagram” while driving, Tesla chief executive officer Andrej Karpathy said last month at an online workshop on autonomous driving.

While the autopilot is in control, drivers can relax, but are not expected to disconnect. Instead, they’re supposed to keep their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road, ready to take over in case the system gets confused or doesn’t recognize dangerous objects or a traffic scenario.

But with little else to do but look straight ahead, some drivers seem unable to resist the temptation to let their attention wander while autopilot is engaged. Videos have been posted on Twitter and elsewhere showing drivers reading or sleeping while driving a Tesla.

The company has often blamed the drivers of its cars, in some cases accusing them of not keeping their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road when using autopilot.

But the National Transportation Safety Board, which has completed investigations into accidents involving autopilot, said the system lacks safeguards to prevent abuse and does not effectively monitor drivers.

Similar systems offered by General Motors, Ford Motor and other automakers use cameras to track a driver’s eyes and issue warnings when they look away from the road. After a few warnings, GM’s Super Cruise system shuts down and forces the driver to take control.

The autopilot does not follow the eyes of drivers and only monitors if their hands are on the wheel. The system sometimes continues to operate even if the driver only has their hands on the wheel for a few seconds at a time.

“This monitoring system is inherently weak because it is easy to cheat and does not monitor very consistently,” said Raj Rajkumar, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University who focuses on autonomous driving technology.

Consumer Reports said in May that one of its engineers was able to activate autopilot in a Tesla and slide into the back seat as the car continued. The California Highway Patrol said in May it had arrested a man who got out of the driver’s seat of his Model 3 while on the move.

Autopilot can also be used on city roads, where intersections, pedestrians, and oncoming traffic make driving more difficult than on highways. GM’s Super Cruise only operates on divided highways.

Yet Mr. Musk has often championed autopilot. The company has cited his own statistics claim that cars that drive with the system on are involved in fewer accidents per mile than other cars. Last Thursday, he wrote on Twitter, that “Accidents on autopilot are increasingly rare. “

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration did not require Tesla to modify or disable the autopilot, but in June it said it would require all automakers to report crashes involving such systems.

Several lawsuits have been filed against Tesla this year, including one in April in Florida State Court this concerns a 2019 crash in Key Largo. A Tesla Model S with autopilot on did not stop at a T-intersection and crashed into a Chevrolet Tahoe parked over one shoulder, killing 22-year-old Naibel Leon. Another complaint was filed in California in May by Darel Kyle, 55, who suffered serious spinal injuries. when a Tesla under autopilot control reversed the pickup truck he was driving.

The accident that killed Jovani Maldonado is a rare case where video and data from the Tesla car has become available. Maldonados’ attorney Benjamin Swanson obtained them from Tesla and shared them with the New York Times.

Mr. Maldonado and his wife, Adriana Garcia, filed their lawsuit in Alameda County Superior Court. Their complaint claims that the autopilot contains flaws and did not respond to traffic conditions. The lawsuit also names Tesla driver Romeo Lagman Yalung of Newark, Calif., And his wife, Vilma, who owns the car and sits in the front passenger seat.

Mr. Yalung and his lawyer did not respond to requests for comment. He and his wife, who were not injured in the crash, have yet to deal with the Maldonado family’s complaint in court.

In court records, Tesla has yet to respond to the claim that the autopilot malfunctioned or is faulty. In emails to Mr Swanson’s company that were filed as evidence in court, Tesla attorney Ryan McCarthy said the driver, not Tesla, was responsible.

“Police blamed the Tesla driver – not the car – for inattention and driving at dangerous speeds,” McCarthy wrote. He did not respond to emails seeking comment.

Mr. Maldonado works for PepsiCo, delivering drinks to retailers. The family, which includes two other children, live in San Lorenzo, about 15 miles north of Fremont.

In written responses to questions, Mr Maldonado said he and his wife were too devastated to speak in an interview. “We live from hand to mouth,” he says. “There is so much sadness inside. We go for family walks and try to do things together like going to church. There is a huge hole in the family.

Mr Maldonado described his son as a sophomore coming out of high school who loved to sing and planned to go to college. His dream was to become a professional footballer and buy a house for his parents. “Like any grateful child, he wanted to take care of his parents as they did for him,” Mr. Maldonado said.

The data and video allow a detailed overview of the operation of the autopilot in the seconds before the crash. Tesla vehicles continuously record short clips from forward looking cameras. If a crash occurs, the video is automatically recorded and uploaded to Tesla’s servers, a company official said in emails included in exhibits filed by Mr Swanson.

Video recorded by the car Mr. Yalung was driving shows that it is passing vehicles on the right and left. Four seconds before impact, Mr. Maldonado turned on his turn signal. He blinked four times while his Explorer was in its original lane. A fifth lightning bolt occurred as his truck sped over the tracks. In court documents, Mr Maldonado said he noticed the Tesla quickly approaching in his rearview mirror and tried to swerve.

For most of the video, the Tesla maintained a speed of 69 miles per hour, but just before impact it briefly increased to 70 mph and then slowed down in the last second, according to car data.

Carnegie Mellon’s Mr Rajkumar, who reviewed the video and data at the Times’ request, said the autopilot may not have braked for the Explorer because Tesla’s cameras were facing the sun or were confused by the truck in front of the Explorer. The Tesla was also fitted with a radar sensor, but that doesn’t seem to have helped.

“Radar would have detected the van and avoided the collision,” Rajkumar said in an email. “So the radar exits were probably not being used.”

Mr. Maldonado’s truck overturned and crashed into a barrier, according to the police report. It had a shattered windshield and a crumpled roof, and the rear axle had come loose. The Tesla had a crumpled roof, its front end was mutilated, its bumper was partially detached, and its windshield was cracked.

Jovani Maldonado was found lying face down on the shoulder of Interstate 880, his blood pooling.


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