Another Tesla fatality invites another investigation and company devaluation

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Updated Mar 30, 2018

It’s hard to know exactly where to start. It’s like watching parts fly off a moving train and wondering if it’s going to stay on the tracks.

But I’m also thinking of the late eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes and the Spruce Goose. There was so much publicity and admiration for this unrelenting genius who couldn’t quite overcome the hurdles necessary to get his gigantic H-4 Hercules really soaring.

Then it hits me…while everyone knows living on the edge isn’t easy, how many injuries and deaths does it take before people turn and walk away? Before altruistic investors tire of playing defense and pick up their marbles and march home?

First up is the deadly crash involving a Tesla vehicle which occurred last Friday near Mountain View, Calif. in Silicon Valley.

And as it stands, unfortunately, the valley lost one its own when 38-year-old Apple engineer Wei ‘Walter’ Huang, who had been traveling alone in a Model X, was killed after crashing into a highway divider.

According to the California Highway Patrol, Huang had been in the southbound carpool lane on Highway 101 around 9:30 a.m. when his car struck the barrier dividing his lane from a Highway 85 flyover.

The strange twist here is that Huang’s family told that he had previously complained to Tesla about Autopilot pulling his car toward that same barrier during his commute. Tesla denies such claims and had this to say on their blog following Huang’s death:

Our data shows that Tesla owners have driven this same stretch of highway with Autopilot engaged roughly 85,000 times since Autopilot was first rolled out in 2015 and roughly 20,000 times since just the beginning of the year, and there has never been an accident that we know of. There are over 200 successful Autopilot trips per day on this exact stretch of road.

In that same blog, Tesla posts pictures of the crash barrier that Huang’s car struck. In one picture, the attenuator is shown at full length. In the other shot, most of it appears to be missing the day before the collision.

Screen Shot 2018 03 29 At 9 13 38 Pm

Regarding the obvious differences shown above, Tesla had this to say:

The reason this crash was so severe is that the crash attenuator, a highway safety barrier which is designed to reduce the impact into a concrete lane divider, had either been removed or crushed in a prior accident without being replaced. The following image shows what the barrier looked like when the crash attenuator was in proper condition, and what it looked like the day prior to the crash, based on dash cam footage from a witness of the accident who commutes daily past this location. We have never seen this level of damage to a Model X in any other crash.

The force of impact was so severe that it ripped away the front of Huang’s car, which was then struck by two other vehicles. Huang died from his injuries at a nearby hospital.

Making the accident scene even tougher and more dangerous was the battery fire that ignited in the demolished Model X. Firefighters had to consult with Tesla to learn how to best handle the blaze. Tesla engineers came out to help as well. The highway was shut down for six hours during the investigation and clean-up.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating, just as they are another Tesla accident that occurred in the Golden State earlier this year. In that case a driver, who admitted to having Autopilot engaged on his Model S while traveling around 65 mph, smashed into the back of a stationary fire truck on I-405 near Los Angeles. Thankfully the man walked away from the collision and no firefighters were injured.

But a fire truck?! Even if you don’t read tea leaves, palms or the stars, that’s far from good luck.

While it’s unclear if Autopilot had been activated at the time of Huang’s fatal accident, what is clear is that Tesla’s credibility has taken another hit.

Lackluster Model 3 production coupled with Huang’s collision and another Federal investigation sent Tesla’s stock dropping nearly 8 percent on Wednesday, its lowest point in nearly a year, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The Times also reports that Moody’s Investor Service downgraded Tesla’s corporate family rating to B3, or six levels into junk status. Moody’s largely laid blame on sluggish Model 3 production. Tesla did get some good news this week thanks to a commitment from FedEx to buy 20 of its electric Semis. The Class 8 regional haulers have garnered a lot of positive press and have left some to wonder if they might prove to be a real boon for the struggling and heavily subsidized company which has still not turned a profit. (Geez…why do I suspect that some professor somewhere is penning a book dubbed Profitless Companies and their Priceless Agendas?).

Further devaluation for Tesla probably came by way of an announcement this week that chipmaker Nvidia, whose technology is used in Autopilot and other self-driving technology, was suspending all of its real-world autonomous driving tests.

Nvidia computer chips were also used in the self-driving system of an Uber Volvo which struck and killed a woman in Arizona on March 18. Elaine Herzberg, 49, was pushing her bicycle across a road in Tempe when she became the first person killed by a self-driving vehicle. Her family reached a settlement today with Uber which has parked its self-driving vehicles for now. NTSB and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are investigating.

Though Tesla has warned its customers not to rely on Autopilot as an actual hands-free autopilot system, drivers still opt to let go of the wheel and let the car take over.

That was the case for Tesla devotee and former U.S. Navy SEAL Joshua Brown who in 2016 crashed into a tractor-trailer in Florida that had failed to yield the right-of-way. Brown died at the scene. Following an investigation that lasted over a year, NTSB and NHSTA concluded that limitations in Tesla’s Autopilot system led to Brown’s crash. Brown was also found at fault for fully relying on Autopilot to do the driving.

The interesting part here is the lack of stories pointing out the helpful and even heroic actions of vehicle autonomy. It’s something that Tesla brings to light on its recent blog:

It is worth noting that an independent review completed by the U.S. Government over a year ago found that Autopilot reduces crash rates by 40%. Since then, Autopilot has improved further. That does not mean that it perfectly prevents all accidents — such a standard would be impossible — it simply makes them less likely to occur. 

While that may be true, in the end, however, when cutting edge technology is found at fault its transgression can be all the more chilling and sinister since viruses and programming errors are typically not confined to one system. Plus, these are indifferent machines that while seemingly packed with divine discernment, still couldn’t care less if you survive crossing the parking lot with latte in hand. So yes, there is a bit of the boogie man complex that autonomous vehicles will be stuck with for years to come despite any data that says otherwise.

But there is good reason for that. The Tesla that hit the stationary fire truck made no attempt to stop, according to the driver. But is that Tesla’s fault? A close look at their manual reveals that AEB will not necessarily detect stationary objects. Darn! Too bad for him.

It looks like that’s the same story for Brown’s Tesla in Florida that struck a semi that had crossed its path. The top half of the car was sheared off as it traveled under the truck’s trailer.

Uber’s autonomous Volvo accident is also troubling. It’s not like Herzberg was dashing across the road like a jackrabbit. She was walking her bike and yet sensors could not apparently detect her and take appropriate action? Sorry, but AV tech like that has no place in the market. I’d take a boat’s 20-year-old radar over that any day.

I realize that AV tech has and will continue to protect and save lives. However, companies that too quickly embrace and exploit the technology are paving the way for haunting headlines that will hurt the rest of the AV industry as a whole.