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Autopilot Cited in Death of Chinese Tesla Driver | One Herald
Home / Technology / Autopilot Cited in Death of Chinese Tesla Driver

Autopilot Cited in Death of Chinese Tesla Driver

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A Tesla Model S at an auto show in Beijing in April. News of a fatal crash involving a Tesla in China will renew questions about when the company should disclose information about accidents in cars equipped with its Autopilot technology. Credit Wu Hong/European Pressphoto Agency

Tesla Motors came under renewed questioning about the safety of its Autopilot technology after news emerged on Wednesday of a fatal crash in China that may have occurred while the automated driver-assist system was operating.

The crash took place Jan. 20 and killed Gao Yaning, 23, when the Tesla Model S he was driving slammed into a road sweeper on a highway near Handan, a city about 300 miles south of Beijing, according to a report broadcast on Wednesday by the Chinese government news channel CCTV.

The report includes in-car video looking through the windshield as the car travels in the left lane at highway speed just before ramming into a parked or slow-moving orange truck. The video, apparently shot by the driver, recorded no images or sounds or jolts that would suggest the driver or the car hit the brakes before impact. At that point, the in-car video ends.

“When it was approaching the road sweeper, the car didn’t put on the brake or avoid it. Instead, it crashed right into it,” a police officer said in the CCTV report.

In an emailed statement, Tesla said on Wednesday that it had not been able to determine whether the Autopilot was active at the time of the Handan accident. The company did not immediately respond to questions about when it learned of the fatality in China, or whether it had reported it to United States safety officials who are investigating a fatal accident in Florida in May in which Autopilot was engaged.

So far, that Florida accident is the only confirmed death involving a Tesla with Autopilot turned on. In that accident, there was no sign that the driver or Autopilot had used the brakes before the car collided at high speed with a tractor-trailer that had turned in front of it.

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A screen shot from a video broadcast by the Chinese government news channel CCTV depicts a fatal crash that may have occurred while a Tesla’s automated driver-assist system was in use. Credit Sina

Although Tesla learned of the May 7 Florida accident a few weeks after it happened, it did not publicly disclose it until late June, when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced that it was investigating the crash.

News of the Chinese crash in January will renew questions about when the company should disclose information about accidents in cars equipped with Autopilot and what information should be shared. On Wednesday, Tesla said it had not confirmed whether Autopilot was a factor in the Handan accident.

“Because of the damage caused by the collision, the car was physically incapable of transmitting log data to our servers, and we therefore have no way of knowing whether or not Autopilot was engaged at the time of the crash,” a company spokeswoman, Alexis Georgeson, said in the statement. “We have tried repeatedly to work with our customer to investigate the cause of the crash, but he has not provided us with any additional information that would allow us to do so,” she said of the car’s owner, Mr. Gao’s father.

She said Tesla was saddened to learn of the death of Mr. Gao. “We take any incident with our vehicles very seriously and immediately reached out to our customer when we learned of the crash,” she said.

Tesla and Autopilot have been under scrutiny since the disclosure of the May fatality. That accident killed Joshua Brown, 40, whose 2015 Model S was traveling 74 miles per hour when it collided with a tractor-trailer that had turned left and was crossing a highway near Williston, Fla. Autopilot’s radar and cameras failed to recognize the white truck against a bright sky.

News of the China crash comes just three days after Tesla’s chief executive, Elon Musk, outlined changes planned for Autopilot that he said would have prevented Mr. Brown’s accident and that he contended would make the Model S one of the safest cars on the road.

Despite their multitude of sensors and processors, autonomous cars have a lot of trouble with some everyday aspects of driving.

The changes include refinements in Autopilot’s radar that improve its ability to spot and identify obstacles down the road, and additional warnings to force drivers to keep their hands on the steering wheel and eyes on the road while the system is active.

Tesla has said Autopilot is not meant to take over completely for a human driver. When Autopilot is turned on, drivers are given audio and textual warnings to remain alert and engaged while using it.

In August, Reuters reported that Tesla removed a Chinese term for “self-driving” from its China website after a driver in Beijing had a nonfatal crash while Autopilot was engaged. That driver later complained that the carmaker had overplayed Autopilot’s capability.

In that accident, the Tesla hit a car that was parked but was still partly in the travel lane. Both cars were damaged but no injuries occurred.

In the fatal January crash, police concluded that the driver, Mr. Gao, had been responsible for the accident, CCTV reported, but in July his family sued the dealer who had sold the Tesla car.

The driver’s father, Gao Jubin, told CCTV he thought his son had been relying on Autopilot to drive the car and so was not watching the road when the crash took place.

The lawsuit was filed “to let the public know that self-driving technology has some defects,” the family’s lawyer said in the report. “We are hoping Tesla, when marketing its products, will be more cautious. Don’t just use self-driving as a selling point for young people.”

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