Facebook Twitter

Driver in Friday Tesla crash in Utah says autopilot was on; Elon Musk questions press coverage

SHARE Driver in Friday Tesla crash in Utah says autopilot was on; Elon Musk questions press coverage

SOUTH JORDAN — The driver of a Tesla Model S that last week slammed into a Unified Fire Authority vehicle stopped at an intersection said she had engaged the autopilot feature in the vehicle but was "looking at her phone prior to the collision," police reported Monday.

The woman, a 28-year-old Lehi resident, has not been identified and, according to police, suffered a broken right foot in the incident as well as some abrasions from the air bag deployment. The driver of the Unified fire repair vehicle was checked for injuries related to whiplash but was not taken to the hospital.

South Jordan Police Sgt. Sam Winkler said the driver told police she was looking for an alternate route on her phone in the moments before the crash and only looked up just before impact.

"The driver said she was heading to an address, and she’d entered the GPS into the vehicle and she was comparing the address to her phone to see which was the shorter route," Winkler said. "She was looking at her phone and looked up just as the accident was about to happen."

The front end of the Tesla was completely crushed in the incident near 10400 S. Bangerter Highway on Friday, and police said the vehicle was traveling at around 60 mph when it hit the vehicle. Police say witnesses told them the driver of the Tesla did not brake or take any action to avoid the collision.

A Tesla spokeswoman declined to comment on the incident Monday but did share links to three tweets sent by Tesla founder and CEO Elon Musk earlier in the day:

Winkler echoed some of Musk's comments, noting that even though the Tesla was extensively damaged, the driver's injuries were relatively minor.

"The vehicle frame was bent and there was significant damage," Winkler said. "But that goes to the Tesla safety features … that she was able to walk away with only the minor injuries that she did."

Winkler also said that Tesla staff had been highly cooperative in the post-accident investigation.

"They’ve been very helpful in this, very willing to send technicians out on short notice and interpret the data and get it back to us," Winkler said. "They said they’d put it at the top of their priority list."

Information that police are hoping to glean from that data includes confirmation that the autopilot was engaged, whether or not the brakes were ever applied, how fast the vehicle was going and what, if any, warnings or alerts were issued by the autopilot system to the driver. Winkler said they expect to see a report back from Tesla in a matter of days. He also noted that regardless of what onboard automation systems a vehicle has, drivers are still required to maintain physical control of their vehicles.

"Even in the owners manual for the Tesla … it says that they’re semi-autonomous and the driver must still be aware of the road at all times, be attentive to the road, and be in physical control at all times in case of the need to take evasive maneuvers," Winkler said. "And (the Tesla driver) could be facing a citation for failing to maintain control of her vehicle."

The accident is another in a series of issues that have plagued the company from Palo Alto, California, including a dust-up with the National Transportation Safety Board over the handling of data related to an investigation into a March 23 fatal accident involving a Tesla Model X in Mountain View, California.

The NTSB currently has four investigations looking at incidents involving Tesla vehicles, though not all of them involve issues with the company's autopilot systems. NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt released a statement explaining why his agency revoked Tesla's status as an official participant in that investigation.

"It is unfortunate that Tesla, by its actions, did not abide by the party agreement," Sumwalt said. "While we understand the demand for information that parties face during an NTSB investigation, uncoordinated releases of incomplete information do not further transportation safety or serve the public interest."

NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway told the Deseret News, as of Monday evening, the agency had not opened an investigation into the Friday crash in South Jordan but would make an announcement if that status changed.

In a March 30 company blog post, Tesla claimed its autopilot-enabled vehicles are involved in 1 automobile fatality every 320 million miles driven, versus 1 fatality for every 86 million miles driven in vehicles by all other manufacturers. If Tesla's safety record applied globally, the company said it would result in 900,000 fewer vehicle fatalities every year and that those driving Teslas equipped with autopilot hardware "are 3.7 times less likely to be involved in a fatal accident."