Tesla ‘Autopilot’ crashes raise new questions, concerns

Michael Wayland
The Detroit News

Another crash involving a Tesla Motors Inc. vehicle equipped with Autopilot is raising new questions about how the feature and other emerging technologies will figure into accident investigations — was it the driver’s fault or the car’s?

In the latest incident, Oakland County resident and art gallery owner Albert Scaglione reportedly told police his 2016 Tesla Model X was in the driver-assist mode when it crashed around 5 p.m. Friday on the Pennsylvania Turnpike — but the company insists there is no evidence the Autopilot contributed to the crash.

The greatest “eyewitness” that law enforcement and federal officials, who are investigating the incident, may have is the growing amount of data being produced by Teslas and other so-called “connected” vehicles. While event-data recorders, or so-called “black boxes,” in cars and trucks have provided some crash information for decades, real-time connected vehicles can produce hordes of data that could prove who, or what, caused an accident.

“It’s uncharted territory in the new type of data that is being introduced,” said Wayne Cohen, a Washington, D.C., trial lawyer and law professor at George Washington University. “That data is not regulated. There is no regulations that pertain to that data.”

Cohen and others believe the underlying data may be more reliable than witnesses’ observations and help automakers avoid frivolous class-action lawsuits.

“Now we’re going to have the car telling us that information,” Gail L. Gottehrer, partner at law firm Axinn, Veltrop & Harkrider LLP, said during a recent auto-tech conference in Novi. “It’s going to prove who’s at fault. Your car may essentially be testifying against you.”

Tesla has previously used data from its vehicles, which can receive over-the-air updates, to debunk drivers’ claims that Autopilot caused accidents.

The most publicized incident involved a Model X owner who claimed the SUV accelerated on its own while entering a parking space and the driver was unable to decelerate before it “autonomously” crashed into a building in California. The company quickly said its data proved the vehicle was in manual-drive mode.

Tesla’s Autopilot is a semi-autonomous feature in Tesla’s vehicles that drivers must select after several prompts and warnings. The feature allows the car to steer within a lane, change lanes with the tap of a turn signal and manage speed by using active traffic-aware cruise control.

Autopilot, a test program, is turned off every time the car is shut down and “requires explicit acknowledgment that the system is new technology and still in a public beta phase before it can be enabled.” When drivers activate Autopilot, it reminds them it is an “assist feature” and that they should keep their hands on the steering wheel.

Pennsylvania crash

The Friday crash, according to the police report, occurred when Scaglione, 77, was driving east on the Pennsylvania Turnpike when the SUV hit a guard rail on the right side of the road. It then crossed over the eastbound lanes and hit a concrete median. After hitting the median, the vehicle rolled onto its roof and landed in the middle of the roadway.

Scaglione, founder and CEO of Park West Gallery in Southfield, told Pennsylvania law enforcement that he had engaged the feature prior to the crash, according to the Detroit Free Press.

Tesla said based on data it received, Autopilot did not contribute to the incident.

“Based on the information we have now, we have no reason to believe that Autopilot had anything to do with this accident,” the company said in a statement Wednesday afternoon. The remarks came after the company earlier in the day had said Tesla had “no data to suggest” that the driver-assist feature was “engaged at the time of the incident.”

Autopilot isn’t mentioned in the police report. Dale Vukovich of the Pennsylvania State Police, who responded to the crash, was not available to comment Wednesday morning. An official with the department later declined to comment past the report.

Both Scaglione of Farmington Hills and passenger Timothy Yanke, a 54-year-old Huntington Woods resident, were injured in the accident, but the report says the severity is unknown.

A representative with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center said neither Scaglione nor Yanke were patients at the hospital as of Wednesday afternoon. The two had been taken there after the accident, according to the crash report.

Neither Scaglione nor Yanke could be reached by The News. Several calls and messages to Scaglione’s Park West Gallery were not returned Wednesday.

An employee at Scaglione’s Park West Gallery on Wednesday afternoon who did not want to be identified would not comment on the accident or Scaglione’s whereabouts.

Tesla said it has attempted to reach Scaglione three times by phone without any response. “As we do with all crash events, we immediately reached out to the customer to confirm they were OK and offer support but were unable to reach him,” the company said.

Feds investigating

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on Wednesday said it is collecting information from the Pennsylvania State Police, Tesla and Scaglione to determine whether “automated functions were in use at the time of the crash” in Pennsylvania.

Scaglione’s crash occurred a day after NHTSA said it would investigate the self-driving technology used in Tesla cars after a fatal crash in Williston, Florida, near Gainesville, on May 7 with a Tesla Model S operating in its Autopilot mode.

NHTSA said preliminary reports say the fatal crash happened when a semi-trailer rig turned left in front of the Tesla at a highway intersection.

Tesla confirmed that the fatal crash in May was in Autopilot mode and neither the driver nor the system sensed the truck’s trailer: “Neither Autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor-trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied,” the company said in a blog posting on June 30.

Tesla said the Florida accident was the “first known fatality in just over 130 million miles where Autopilot was activated,” and the number of miles driven without a fatality in Autopilot was better than the fatality rate of every 94 million miles driven in the United States and approximately every 60 million miles worldwide.


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Twitter: @MikeWayland

Staff Writer Ian Thibodeau contributed.