Tesla is once again in the hot seat following a fatal Autopilot crash incident that claimed the life of 38-year-old Walter Huang in California. Apparently, the Model X was engaged in Autopilot mode but the driver’s hands were not detected on the steering wheel for six seconds prior to the collision.

Now, ABC7 I-Team has obtained exclusive information about a different non-fatal Tesla crash in September 2017, which the driver – who refuses to be identified – says has similarities to Huang’s crash. Apparently, his Model S, which was on Autopilot at the time, slammed into the divider after the low sun got in his eyes.

Unlike the crash that killed Huang, the safety barrier was in working order, and the driver walked away uninjured. Jim McPherson of SafeSelfDrive told ABC7 News reporter Dan Noyes that “the low sun angle could also pose a problem for the cameras that Tesla uses to drive.” McPherson even pointed out some similarities between the September crash and Huang’s tragic accident.

“Both Teslas had low morning sun, both traveling at highway speeds, both on Autopilot, and both may have become confused by the road markings,” read the report. “You have a difference in the pavement colour. You have white lines that Autopilot usually uses to centre itself within the lane,” said McPherson.

In fact, Shantanu Joshi – another Tesla owner – who uses the same route as Huang recorded a video by the accident scene and said “the car definitely swerves (in Autopilot mode). It starts swerving left without giving me any warnings right into that divider.” Joshi immediately assumed control of the vehicle and manoeuvred out of harm’s way.

What’s more, a general contractor from Chicago told ABC7 I-Team the Autopilot on his Model X often has problems at the same location on his commute, so he too recorded a video, showing the exact same chain of events – the Autopilot appears to take him straight into a barrier, but he braked in time to avoid a crash.

However, despite the evidences that point out the Autopilot’s flaw, there is one big difference in the crashes – the safety barrier Huang hit had been collapsed by a previous crash eleven days prior. “Huang basically hit a wall and died, and this other driver who hit the working smart cushion walked away,” read the report.

A Tesla spokeswoman told the publication that “Autopilot is intended for use only with a fully attentive driver,” and that it “does not prevent all accidents – such a standard would be impossible – but it makes them much less likely to occur.”

A peek into the Model X owner’s manual reveals that the Autopilot is a “Beta feature” and to “never depend on Autosteer to determine an appropriate driving path. Always be prepared to take immediate action. Failure to follow these instructions could cause damage, serious injury or death.” Tesla also said that Autopilot is merely a driver assistance system that still requires you to pay attention to the road at all times.


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UC Berkeley Research Professor Steven Shladover, who is considered a pioneer in self-driving technology, said “drivers try to do other things while they’re driving and not paying attention and those are situations in which they get in trouble.” Shladover also said Tesla should take a cue from GM’s Smart Cruise system that aims cameras at the driver.

“People should be realistic about the limitations of these self-driving systems at this point in time. We have to recognise that we’ve got to crawl before we walk. We got to walk before we run and we’re still at the crawling stage with this technology,” explained Shladover.

Tesla’s Autopilot system, despite its name, is still a Level 2 self-driving system. However, the name and the way it has been marketed may have influenced how owners use the feature, in some cases relying more on it than actually driving themselves. In essence, a Level 2 autonomous driving car still requires the driver to pay attention with hands on the steering wheel. It’s not a self-drive system but a driving assist system.

The death of a Huang is the third involving the Autopilot system, with other cases being Gao Yaning in China and Joshua Brown in Florida. In both cases, the drivers’ Model S had their systems engaged at the time. Huang’s family has already hired an attorney.