Tesla Contends With Another Fatal Model S Crash, Unsure If Autopilot Involved

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Tesla Motors, days after announcing upgrades to its semi-autonomous Autopilot driving system, confirmed that it’s reviewing an accident involving a Model S sedan in China that killed the son of the car’s owner early this year.

The crash occurred in January, according to a report by Reuters. The driver was identified by China’s CCTV as Gao Yaning, 23, and it posted footage of the Model S striking a road-cleaning vehicle on a highway in Heibei province. Gao’s family is suing Tesla and the dealer that sold the vehicle, according to Reuters.

CCTV’s report said Autopilot was engaged at the time of the accident. The company said that hasn’t been determined.

“We were saddened to learn of the death of our customer’s son,” Tesla said in a statement. “We take any incident with our vehicles very seriously and immediately reached out to our customer when we learned of the crash.”

Owing to the severity of the accident, “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,” Tesla said. “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.”

The timing of the accident puts it months before Tesla owner Joshua Brown was killed in a fatal collision in Florida in May. U.S. safety officials have confirmed that Brown, 40, was using Autopilot when his car struck a truck that turned in front of him. The accident is still being reviewed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Despite the name of the feature, Tesla warns drivers that they must keep their hands on the wheel while using Autopilot before it can be engaged the first time. The company has said Autopilot is designed to assist drivers, rather than functioning as a fully autonomous driving system.

On Sept. 11, Tesla CEO detailed changes to the feature to make much greater use of its radar system to help the vehicle “see” its environment and potential hazards with more clarity. That upgrade to Autopilot rolls out in weeks.

Consumer Watchdog, a Santa Monica, California-based safety advocacy group, issued a statement late Wednesday blasting Tesla for not disclosing the earlier accident in China.

“Tesla’s failure to report the death of another of its human guinea pigs in a timely manner is unconscionable,” John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project director. “It also makes it clear that autonomous vehicle technologies must be subject to safety regulations that are enforceable by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.”

NHTSA has said it’s preparing initial guidelines for auto and tech companies to oversee the testing and use of automated driving systems and plans to share the information soon.

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