DETROIT – Virginia authorities have determined that a Tesla was on its Autopilot and was traveling at speed in the moments that led up to its collision with an intersecting tractor-trailer last July, killing the Tesla driver.
The death of Pablo Teodoro III, 57 years old, is the third since 2016 that a Tesla vehicle has witnessed.
It was using Autopilot that was operated under a crossing tractor trailer, raising questions about the safety of the partially automated system and where it should be allowed to operate.
The crash in southern Washington remains under investigation by the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which sent investigators to Virginia last summer and began a broader investigation into Autopilot more than two years ago.
Investigators determined that Autopilot was being used in Teodoro’s Tesla Model Y by downloading information from the vehicle’s event data recorder, Fauquier County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Jeffrey Long said Tuesday.
Sheriff’s investigators used a search warrant to gain access to the recorder in late July. Authorities released some findings this week after an investigation by The Associated Press.
The Tesla was traveling 70 mph on four-lane U.S. 29 near Opal, and was traveling 25 mph above the 45 mph speed limit in that area, Long said. The road has a median area and is accessible at intersections and from driveways.
Long said Teodoro took action the second before the accident, but he wasn’t sure if that deactivated the system. He did not know what action Teodoro took, but said the brakes were applied just one second before the collision, slowing the car slightly.
He said he could not detect speed at impact or determine whether Teodoro or Tesla applied the brakes because his office is working with NHTSA in its ongoing investigation.
Before the accident, Tesla warned Teodoro not to take control of the car because it detected something in the road. But neither the car equipped with automatic emergency braking nor Teodoro were able to stop it in time to avoid a collision.
The accident investigator’s analysis of the data recorder “indicated that the system was aware of something on the road and was sending messages” to the driver, Long said.
“Our investigation also determined that the driver would have had sufficient time and distance to avoid the accident had he been driving at the posted speed limit,” Long said in a statement. “The full investigation concluded that the driver had more than enough time to brake and come to a complete stop.”
Initially, the truck driver in the crash was charged with reckless driving because he created a barrier to traffic, but the charge was dropped in October by the commonwealth’s attorney at the request of the Sheriff’s Office, Long said.
Under Virginia law, a driver gives up the legal right of way if they violate the speed limit, Long said.
Authorities said the trailer was leaving a truck stop on the highway at the time of the accident.
In October of 2021, the head of the National Transportation Safety Board called on Tesla to limit where Autopilot can operate and put in place a better system to make sure drivers are paying attention.
Chairman Jennifer Homendy wrote to CEO Elon Musk noting that her agency’s investigation into a similar incident with a semi-automated vehicle in 2016 found that Tesla allowed its vehicles to operate on Autopilot on roads where they were not designed for safety operation. An NTSB spokesperson said Tuesday that Musk did not respond to Homendy’s letter.
Tesla did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment.
Its website says Autopilot and its more advanced “full self-driving” system can’t drive themselves and are intended to help drivers who must be ready to intervene at all times.
Using Autopilot, the Tesla can automatically steer, accelerate, and brake in its lane, the site says.
In a statement posted Monday on X, formerly Twitter, Tesla said safety is stronger when Autopilot is on.
The Virginia accident brings the number of Tesla crashes under investigation by NHTSA to 35 since June 2016. In all cases, the agency suspects that the Tesla vehicles were partially automated. At least 17 people have died.
Recent crashes being investigated by NHTSA include a head-on collision on July 5 between a Tesla Model 3 and a Subaru Impreza in South Lake Tahoe, California. A Subaru driver and an infant traveling in a Tesla were killed.
NHTSA also sent investigators to a March 15 crash in Halifax County, North Carolina, that left a 17-year-old student injured. The driver of a 2022 Tesla Model Y, a 51-year-old man, failed to stop in front of a school bus, which had all of its warning devices activated, the State Highway Patrol said at the time.
A message was left seeking comment from the agency, which has not announced the results of its investigation into the Tesla crash.
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