Inside Tesla Autopilot Fatal Crash: "It Happened So Fast"

George Brian McGee, a Florida financial executive, driving home in a Tesla Model S autopilot operation , a system that can steer, brake ...


George Brian McGee, a Florida financial executive, driving home in a Tesla Model S autopilot operation, a system that can steer, brake and accelerate a car on its own, when he dropped his phone during a call and leaned down to look for it.

Neither he nor the autopilot noticed the road ended and the Model S passed a stop sign and a flashing red light. The car crashed into a parked Chevrolet Tahoe, killing 22-year-old student Naibel Benavides.

One of the growing number of deaths accidents involving Tesla cars running on autopilot, Mr McGee’s case is unusual as he survived and told investigators what happened – he got distracted and trusted a system that didn’t see and brake for a parked car behind him. Tesla drivers using autopilot in other fatal crashes have often been killed, leaving investigators to piece together the details of the stored data and videos recorded by the cars.

“I was driving and dropped my phone,” McGee told an officer responding to the crash, according to a police corps camera recording. “I looked down, ran the stop sign, and hit the guy’s car.”

Mr. McGee’s statements to investigators, the accident report and court documents paint a tragic picture of over-reliance on technology. They also strongly suggest that the autopilot failed a basic function – automatic emergency braking – that engineers developed years ago. Many newer cars, including much more affordable and less sophisticated models than Tesla’s, can slow down or stop when an accident seems likely.

On Monday, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced it had opened a formal investigation into the autopilot. The agency said it was aware of 11 accidents since 2018 involving Tesla crashing into police, fire and other emergency vehicles with flashing lights parked on roads and roads. highways. In one, a Tesla crashed into a fire truck in December 2019 in Indiana, killing a passenger in the car and seriously injuring the driver.

Distracted driving can be fatal in any car. But safety experts say autopilot can encourage distraction by tricking people into believing their cars are more capable than they are. And the system doesn’t include guards to make sure drivers pay attention to the road and can regain control if something goes wrong.

Mr McGee, who declined to comment through his attorney, told investigators he was on the phone with American Airlines to make reservations to fly for a funeral. He called the airline at 9:05 p.m. on April 25, 2019. The call lasted just over five minutes and ended two seconds after his Model S crashed in Tahoe, according to a Florida investigation. Highway Patrol. florida law makes it illegal to text while driving, but the state does not prohibit drivers from talking on cell phones except in school or work zones.

Mr. McGee, who was near his home in Key Largo after driving about 100 miles from his office in Boca Raton, called 911 and then spoke to police officers who responded to the crash. In both sets of recorded conversations, he appears shaken but speaks clearly. He said he looked up, saw it was about to hit the Tahoe, and tried to stop the car.

“When I appeared and looked and saw a black truck – it happened so fast,” he told officers, calling the autopilot “stupid cruise control.”

Tesla, the world’s most valuable automaker, and its chief executive, Elon Musk, describe autopilot as a way to make driving easier and safer.

Despite the name, Autopilot does not make the Teslas autonomous. The automotive industry classifies it, along with similar systems offered by General Motors and other companies, in Level 2 for autonomous driving. Cars that can run autonomously at any time would be level 5, a distinction that no vehicle on sale today is close to reaching.

Critics of Tesla argue that the autopilot has several weaknesses, including the ability for drivers like Mr. McGee to use it on local roads. With the help of GPS and software, GM, Ford Motor and other automakers are limiting their systems to divided highways where there are no stop signs, traffic lights, or pedestrians.

Tesla owner’s manuals warn customers not to use autopilot on city streets. “Failure to follow these instructions could result in damage, serious injury or death,” says the 2019 model manual.

“The technology exists to limit where the autopilot can work, but Tesla allows drivers to use it on roads it shouldn’t work on,” said Jason K. Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety. , a Washington nonprofit group. “They made a corporate decision to do it, and it resulted in preventable tragedies. It should be infuriating.

Mr Musk and Tesla’s associate general counsel Ryan McCarthy did not respond to emails seeking comment.

Regulators are investigating other potential autopilot faults. The system, which includes cameras, radar and software, sometimes fails to recognize other vehicles and stationary objects. In July, a Tesla struck a sport utility vehicle parked at the site of a previous crash on a freeway near San Diego. The driver had activated the autopilot, fell asleep and later failed a field sobriety test, police said. This year, Californian couple sued Tesla in connection with a 2019 accident that killed their 15-year-old son.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is investigating more than two dozen accidents that occurred while the autopilot was in use. The agency said it was aware of at least 10 deaths in the crashes.

Mr. McGee, 44, is a managing partner of a small private equity firm, New Water Capital. He bought his Model S, a performance model, in 2019.

On the night of the accident, he left Boca Raton and headed south on major highways. South of Miami, he took US Route 1, took a narrow mainland toll bridge at Key Largo, and continued on Card Sound Road, a two-lane road that ends at County Road 905. Mr. McGee had the autopilot activated, and the speed was set at 44 miles per hour, according to data police recovered from the car.

Around the same time, Ms. Benavides had a date with Dillon Angulo. He was driving his mother’s black Tahoe and stopped on the wide shoulder of County Road 905, near Card Sound Road. Mr. Angulo stopped about 44 feet from the edge of the intersection, parked on a gravel strip and exited. According to the investigation, Ms. Benavides exited the passenger seat and walked to the driver’s side.

Tesla data shows the Model S accelerated from 44 to 60 mph in seconds before crashing into the Tahoe. It is not known whether the autopilot or Mr. McGee increased speed. Vehicle data and skid marks indicated that Mr. McGee had stuck on the brakes less than a second before impact. He told police he couldn’t tell how far he was from the intersection when he started looking for his phone.

Ms Benavides’ estate sued Tesla in Miami-Dade County Circuit Court, claiming the company’s cars were “faulty and dangerous.” Todd Poses, a Miami attorney representing the estate, said Mr. McGee is due to file a deposition in the case. A separate lawsuit that the estate filed against Mr. McGee has been settled, Poses said, but he did not disclose the terms.

In court, Tesla filed a brief response denying the estate’s claims without further details. In similar cases, the company has said that all blame lies solely with the drivers of its cars.

As in other accidents involving the autopilot, the system didn’t seem to have done much to ensure that Mr. McGee was paying attention to the road.

Tesla recently activated an on-board camera in some newer models to monitor drivers, but it can’t see in the dark. Tesla owners have posted videos on YouTube showing that the camera sometimes does not notice when drivers look away from the road and that it can be fooled if they cover the lens. When the camera notices that a Tesla driver is looking away from the road, it sounds a warning chime but does not turn off the autopilot.

GM and Ford systems use infrared cameras to monitor drivers’ eyes. If drivers look away for more than two or three seconds, warnings remind them to look straight ahead. If the drivers don’t comply, the GM and Ford systems will shut down and tell the drivers to take control of the car.

Ms. Benavides emigrated from Cuba in 2016 and lived with her mother in Miami. She worked at a Walgreens drugstore and clothing store while attending community college. An older sister, Neima, 34, who is the estate’s executor, said Naibel had worked to improve her English in hopes of obtaining a college degree.

“She was always laughing and making people laugh,” said Neima Benavides. “Her favorite activity was going to the beach. She would go there almost every day and go out with friends or sit on her own and read.

Neima Benavides said she hopes the lawsuit will prompt Tesla to make autopilot safer. “Maybe something can change so that other people don’t have to go through this.”

Ms. Benavides had just started dating Mr. Angulo when they went fishing in Key Largo. That afternoon, she texted her sister a text saying she was having a good time. At 9 p.m. Ms Benavides called her mother from Mr Angulo’s phone to tell her she was going home. She had lost her phone that day.

When calling 911, Mr. McGee reported that a man was on the ground, unconscious and bleeding from his mouth. Several times Mr. McGee said, “Oh, my God” and shouted “Help! When an emergency operator asked if the man was the only person injured, Mr. McGee replied, “Yes, he’s the only passenger. “

Mr. Angulo was airlifted to a hospital. He later told investigators he had no recollection of the crash or why they stopped at the intersection.

An emergency medical technician spotted a woman’s sandal under the Tahoe and called for others to start looking for another victim in the area. “Please tell me no,” Mr. McGee can be heard in the police video. “Please tell me no. “

Ms. Benavides’ body was found approximately 25 meters away.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Inside Tesla Autopilot Fatal Crash: "It Happened So Fast"
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