Tesla driver who died in ‘autopilot’ crash was playing on phone, inquiry finds

A Tesla driver killed in a Silicon Valley crash was playing a video game on his smartphone at the time of his fatal crash, investigators said on Tuesday.

The National Transport and Safety Board (NTSB) investigation found that Walter Huang, a 38-year-old Apple software engineer and game developer, made no attempts to stop his vehicle as it sped towards a crash barrier before the 2018 crash.

Huang’s Tesla Model X was in “Autopilot” mode and traveling at about 70 miles per hour when it crashed into a safety barrier and was struck by two other vehicles. He died in hospital from his injuries.

“If you own a car with partial automation, do you not own a self-driving car. So don’t pretend that you do,” said the NTSB chairman, Robert Sumwalt. “This means that when driving in the supposed self-driving mode you can’t sleep. You can’t read a book. You can’t watch a movie or TV show. You can’t text. And you can’t play video games. Yet that’s precisely what we found that this driver was doing.”

NTSB officials said the crash was very similar to other Tesla crashes it is investigating and called on car companies, government regulators, mobile phone companies and employers to do more to prevent accidents caused by distracted driving.

Sumwalt took aim at government regulators who he said have given “scant oversight” of the industry as it develops self-driving technologies and noted that Tesla had yet to respond to its safety recommendations which he said had been sent to the company 881 days ago “and we have heard nothing”.

The NTSB has previously criticized Tesla’s Autopilot after a 2016 fatal crash in Florida and called on the company to make its driver-assist systems more resilient to misuse by inattentive drivers.

At the Washington hearing NTSB experts discussed “automation complacency” an issue when drivers placed too much trust in technology. Robert Molloy, director of the NTSB’s office of highway safety, said: “This is not a unique problem to Tesla, this is a problem related to automation and how people work with automation.”

Tesla has claimed its internal data shows that drivers using Autopilot crash less frequently while using the technology than while driving manually.

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