The crash involving a Tesla Model S car in China may have been caused by its automated driver-assist system. This has emerged amid ongoing internal investigation at Tesla and the hearing of the lawsuit filed by the victim's family in Beijing.
The incident, which transpired in January, involved Gao Yaning, a 23-year-old driver. His Tesla car hit a road sweeper while traversing a highway in the province of Hebei. Gao's family claimed that the autopilot technology failed to prevent the fatal crash.
Presently, Tesla would not confirm this claim. It has indicated, however, that it is difficult to ascertain whether the Autopilot technology did indeed cause the crash.
"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," Tesla explained.
The family of the victims reportedly refused to cooperate in the Tesla investigation. The company claimed it prevents it further from finding out what truly happened. However, the video clip that captured the accident could provide some insights.
In the dashcam footage, Gao's car was shown continuously moving forward at highway speed without slowing down or avoiding the road sweeper, which was partially on its path. The clip did not capture any sound and movements inside the car that could have indicated driver actions prior to the accident. This could have shed light on whether the Autopilot was turned on.
Tesla also warns its drivers in the car's manual to pay attention to the road and prepare to take corrective action since the Autopilot cannot always detect and make decisions and actions concerning stationary objects on its path.
The only other Tesla Model S-related fatality took place in May, when Joshua Brown, a 40-year-old entrepreneur, crashed his vehicle on a tractor trailer crossing the road in Florida. In this case, the Autopilot was turned on. However, it failed to distinguish the color of the tractor from the bright sky behind it.
In response to the fatality and increased regulatory scrutiny, Tesla recently announced a planned update of its Autopilot system. The changes include a shift in reliance from captured images to the radar sensors in its system. This is expected to improve the AI's capability to detect metallic objects.
"My personal guess is that there is probably a threefold improvement in safety," Elon Musk, Tesla's CEO said. "I have to emphasize this does not mean perfect safety though, perfect safety is really an impossible goal."