The driver of a Tesla car involved in a fatal accident in California Highway authorities believe was operating on autopilot posted videos of himself on social media riding in the vehicle without his hands on the wheel or foot on the accelerator.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is also investigating the 5 May crash in Fontana, a city 50 miles east of Los Angeles. It’s the federal agency’s 29th case involving a Tesla.
Steven Michael Hendrickson, 35, was killed in the Fontana crash when his Tesla Model 3 collided with an overturned truck on a freeway around 2:30a.m.
Hendrickson was a member of a Tesla club in southern California who shared various photographs and videos of his white Model 3 on social media.
On his Instagram account, he posted a video of himself riding in the driver’s seat without his hands on the wheel or foot on the pedal while the Tesla navigated freeway traffic. The following comment was added to the video: “Best carpool buddy possible – even takes the boring traffic for me.”
Hendrickson is survived by his wife and two children, according to a GoFundMe page set up to raise money for his funeral and memorial service.
“Every time we spoke to him, he would light up talking about his kids and loved his Tesla,” Tesla Club-SoCal posted on Instagram. “He was truly an amazing human being and will be missed!”
Another man was seriously injured when the electric vehicle struck him while he was assisting the truck driver in getting out of the wreck.
The California Highway Patrol (CHP) reported on Thursday that the Tesla’s partially automated driving system “was engaged” after a preliminary investigation.
The agency reversed its previous statement on Friday. “To clarify,” a new statement said, “no final determination has been made as to what driving mode the Tesla was in or whether it was a contributing factor in the crash.”
At least three people have died in previous crashes involving the system in the US
The CHP initially stated that it was commenting on the Fontana crash due to the “high level of interest” in Tesla crashes as it was “an opportunity to remind the public that driving is a complex task that requires a driver’s full attention.”
The federal investigation follows the arrest of a man in the back seat of a Tesla on Interstate 80 near Oakland with no one behind the wheel, according to authorities.
The CHP has not stated whether the Tesla involved in the I80 incident was on autopilot, which can hold a car focused in its lane and a safe distance behind vehicles in front of it. However, with the driver to be in the back seat, it’s possible that either autopilot or full self-driving was in use. Tesla is testing the self-driving system with a small group of owners.
Tesla did not respond to an email requesting comment after disbanding its public relations department. Both autopilot and complete self-driving, based on the company’s owner’s manuals and website, are not completely autonomous, and drivers must pay attention and be ready to interfere at any moment.
When it comes to stationary artifacts and traffic crossing in front of Teslas, Autopilot has struggled. In two separate Florida collisions in 2016 and 2019, cars equipped with autopilot collided with crossing tractor-trailers, killing the men driving the Teslas. An Apple engineer was killed in a 2018 crash in Mountain View, California, when his Tesla collided with a highway barrier while traveling on autopilot.
Tesla’s system, which relies on cameras, radar, and short-range sonar to detect stopped emergency vehicles, also has issues. Several Teslas have collided with firetrucks and police cars that were stopped on freeways with their emergency lights blinking.
After a Tesla on autopilot collided with a Michigan state police vehicle on I96 near Lansing in March, the NHTSA dispatched a team to investigate. Neither the trooper nor the 22-year-old Tesla driver were hurt, the police said.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) proposed that Tesla develop a stronger system to ensure drivers are paying attention and limit use of autopilot to highways where it can work effectively after the fatal crashes in Florida and California. No action was taken by Tesla or the protection agency.