It's been less than two weeks since the stock of Tesla tumbled, when amid a flurry of scandal, production setbacks and Wall Street downgrades, the company admitted that its autopilot had been engaged during a fatal March 23 crash in which Apple engineer Walter Huang died when his Model X collided with a highway barrier in Mountain View, California, and caught fire.
At the time, Elon Musk enraged the NTSB, when his company broke a public embargo and claimed that the autopilot was not at fault, even though the government agency had not yet concluded what was the reason behind the crash. This in turn prompted a furious rebuke from the NTSB, which was angry that Tesla was clouding the conclusion by presupposing that the autopilot had no guilt:
"The NTSB is looking into all aspects of this crash including the driver's previous concerns about the autopilot. We will work to determine the probable cause of the crash and our next update of information about our investigation will likely be when we publish a preliminary report, which generally occurs within a few weeks of completion of field work."
And now, just hours after Huang's family hired a law firm in preparation for a major lawsuit against Tesla, Musk doubled down and once again placed the blame for the fatal Model X crash on the deceased driver, claiming in an emailed statement that the tragic accident happened on a clear day, with several hundred feet of visibility ahead, and that Huang didn’t have his hands on the steering wheel for six seconds before his vehicle collided with a highway barrier in Mountain View, California, and caught fire.
“The only way for this accident to have occurred is if Mr. Huang was not paying attention to the road, despite the car providing multiple warnings to do so,” the statement said. “The fundamental premise of both moral and legal liability is a broken promise, and there was none here.”
Others, such as Huang's widow, disagree.
Speaking to ABC7, Sevonne Huang, the wife of the killed Apple engineer said "I just want this tragedy not to happen again to another family." She says her husband complained on several occasions about how the Autopilot behaved on the Tesla Model X near the very same barrier where he crashed and died.
When Walter got the job as an engineer at Apple last November he got himself a birthday present -- the Tesla Model X. Syvonne tells Dan Noyes Walter complained that the Autopilot appeared to be malfunctioning, steering toward that same barrier in Mountain View on several occasions.
"Unfortunately, it appears that Tesla has tried to blame the victim here," Huang family attorney Mark Fong told ABC7. "It took him out of the lane that he was driving in, then it failed to break, then it drove him into this fixed concrete barrier. We believe this would've never happened had this Autopilot never been turned on."
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Musk's repeat defense of the autopilot, which we also learned that Huang had previously complained about, and which nearly caused a similar fatal crash at exactly the same location, will once again infuriate the National Transportation Safety Board, whose investigators are currently looking into the causes of the crash that killed Huang, as well as a collision in January involving a Tesla Model S using Autopilot that rear-ended a fire truck parked on a freeway near Los Angeles.
In keeping with Musk's inimical style, the Tesla email also repeated said it is “extremely clear” that Autopilot requires drivers to be alert and have hands on the steering wheel. The system reminds the driver this every time it’s engaged, according to the company.
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While Minami Tamaki LLP, the law firm that announced its hiring by Huang’s family earlier Wednesday, declined to comment on Tesla’s statement, others did not feel the need to hold back.
"Tesla’s response is reflective of its ongoing strategy of doubling down on the explicit warnings it has given to drivers on how to use and not use the system,” said Mike Ramsey, an analyst at Gartner Inc. “It’s not the first time Tesla has taken this stance.”
Another way of putting that is that the stakes for Tesla are great, and Musk knows that if the NTSB concludes that the electric carmaker was at fault, any modest demand momentum it may have, could be gone overnight.
After partially faulting Autopilot for a May 2016 fatal crash, NTSB investigators last year called on carmakers to do more to ensure drivers stay engaged as next-generation cars start to steer themselves. Tesla has lagged behind automakers including General Motors Co. and Subaru Corp. in embracing driver-facing camera systems that can monitor head and eye movement and disengage partially autonomous systems when the driver isn’t paying attention.
This who fiasco also begs the question: why is it called "Autopilot" in the first place, if it disengages the moment the driver's attention is diverted.
Meanwhile, a bit of a turf war has erupted between the NTSB and NHTSA. As Bloomberg reports, while the NTSB has no regulatory powers but makes safety-related recommendations to both the government and transportation companies, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration does have the power to order recalls and fine manufacturers; it also investigated the 2016 Tesla crash and closed its probe in January 2017, saying it didn’t find a defect.
One can guess which particular agency Musk has been lobbying.
Meanwhile, with a major lawsuit looming, Tesla continues to defend a system which - at least as of this moment - appears woefully inadequate. According to data Tesla gave investigators, Autopilot prevents the rate of crashes per million miles driven by about 40%, a figure it continues to cite in defending the system.
And yet, the company has declined to say how long drivers can now use Autopilot between visual or audible warnings to have a hand on the wheel, how many alerts can be ignored before the system disengages, what version of software was in Huang’s Model X, or when it was built.
“We empathize with Mr. Huang’s family, who are understandably facing loss and grief, but the false impression that Autopilot is unsafe will cause harm to others on the road,” Tesla said in Wednesday’s statement. “NHTSA found that even the early version of Tesla Autopilot resulted in 40 percent fewer crashes and it has improved substantially since then. The reason that other families are not on TV is because their loved ones are still alive.”
No matter how the lawsuit ends, or how many more lives are lost as Musk beta tests his favorite invention, the far bigger delusion continues. As John Thompson, head of Vilas Capital Management, put it best: "As a reality check, Tesla is worth twice as much as Ford, yet Ford made six million cars last year at a $7.6 billion profit, while Tesla made 100,000 cars at a $2 billion loss."