‘Killed because Tesla is beta testing Autopilot on live drivers’
The family of Wei ‘Walter’ Huang, the Apple software engineer who died in March 2018 when he crashed with his Tesla X while on Autopilot, is suing Tesla “to prevent tragedies like to this to happen to other Tesla drivers or drivers of any semi-autonomous vehicles”.
‘Beta testing on live drivers’
One of the lawyers for the family, B. Mark Fong, told the Bloomberg press agency that Huang “died because Tesla is beta testing its Autopilot software on live drivers”. His colleague, Doris Cheng, added: “We want to make sure that the technology behind semi-autonomous cars is sure before it is deployed on the road and that the risks aren’t covered up or badly represented to the public”.
Crash into concrete barrier
The accident happened on March 23rd last year in Mountain View, California, on the highway 101. The driver, Wei Huang, was driving on Autopilot when the car crashed into a safety barrier section that divided the carpool lane from the off-ramp.
The car was ripped apart, caught fire and was hit at the rear by two other cars crashing into it. Huang was rescued from the wreck, but died later in the hospital. In the complaint lodged by the family on April 26th, 2019, Tesla is accused that its Autopilot system failed by not recognizing the concrete safety barrier and that it has accelerated instead of braking.
No automatic emergency braking
At that time, the family claims, the Tesla X didn’t have an automatic emergency braking system yet, while other cheaper car brands already did. Knowing the risk, the family says, Tesla should have issued a recall or at least a warning “in light of the risk of harm”.
In a preliminary report on the accident, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) stated in June 2018 that the Model X was driving at 62 mph (100 kph) eight seconds before impact, when the Autopilot steered to the left and accelerated to 70,8 mph (117 kph). The car crashed into the concrete barrier without braking or evasive steering.
No hands on the wheel
The report also showed that Huang didn’t have his hands on the steering wheel at that moment. He was alerted two times with a visual alert and one auditory alert already more than 15 minutes before the crash. After the accident Tesla altered the Autopilot system to shut off when a driver doesn’t respond on the alerts to keep his hands on the steering wheel.
Tesla admits the car was in Autopilot mode, but pointed at the fact that Huang didn’t have his hands on the steering wheel, despite several visual warnings and an audible sign to take control. The track record of the car shows the driver didn’t have his hands on the wheel the last six seconds before impact. He had a 150 m clear view on the safety barrier, but no action was taken, Tesla claimed earlier to its defense.
Autopilot questioned before
Tesla’s Autopilot was questioned before by the NTSB after a Model S crashed in Florida in 2016, into the side of a white heavy-duty truck that the camera’s of the Tesla didn’t pick up against the bright light of the sun. Tesla wasn’t held responsible for that accident, though.
One month after the Mountain View accident, Jim Keller, head of Tesla’s Autopilot department, left the electric car manufacturing company. Keller, formerly designing chips for AMD and later for Apple, had worked for Tesla for two years and became head of the Autopilot department in the summer of 2017. He declared he wanted to return to the development of computer chips.
A million Tesla robotaxis
The law suit comes at a bad time for Tesla’s flamboyant CEO, Elon Musk, who just baffled both believers and non-believers end of last month by promising “a million Tesla self-driving robotaxis on de road” as close as next year.
Musk told his investors at a closed company event that with the hardware that ships with every Tesla today, it will only take to “flip the switch” and push a software update “to turn an estimated 400.000 Teslas on the road into self-driving cars”.