Tesla Motors shares fell 2.5% late last week after news broke that a Model S driver in Florida had died at the wheel in May, after the vehicle’s autopilot failed to spot a large, white tractor trailer crossing its path.
The incident, the first fatal accident in 130 million miles of roadway experience, is now under investigation by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). In a blog post last Thursday, Tesla noted that conventional vehicles record a death every 90 million miles.
“What we know is that the vehicle was on a divided highway with Autopilot engaged when a tractor trailer drove across the highway perpendicular to the Model S,” the automaker reported. “Neither Autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly-lit sky, so the brake was not applied.”
In the post, Tesla took great pains to emphasize that it “disables Autopilot by default and requires explicit acknowledgement that the system is a new technology and still in a public beta phase before it can be enabled,” RenewEconomy reports.
The disclaimer specifies that Autopilot “is an assist feature that requires you to keep your hands on the steering wheel at all times,” and that “you need to maintain control and responsibility for your vehicle” while using it. But within days of the initial blog post, Electrek was reporting that the driver—Model S enthusiast Joshua D. Brown of Canton, Ohio, who’d previously credited the autopilot feature with saving his life in a near miss caught on video—may have been watching a movie when the fatal crash occurred.
Brown was “playing Harry Potter on the TV screen” and “went so fast through my trailer I didn’t see him,” Okemah Express LLC driver Frank Baressi told AP. “It was still playing when he died and snapped a telephone pole a quarter-mile down the road.” Baressi “acknowledged he couldn’t see the movie, only heard it,” the news service notes.
Electrek points out that the police report on the incident “made no mention of a movie playing,” adding that the video playback in the Model S “is locked to only work for the rear camera feed.” The Florida Highway Patrol later reported that a portable DVD player was found in the car.
The crash was just the latest in a series of announcements that have taken some of the sheen off Tesla’s flawless public image. Earlier in June, the company’s stock dropped 6% on reports that the NHTSA was investigating its suspension systems. Tesla said NHTSA was engaging in “routine screening”, and denied that the non-disclosure clause attached to some of its free repairs was designed to prevent customer complaints to the federal agency.
The company “pledged to work with the safety agency to amend the wording of its non-disclosure agreements,” CBC reported at the time. “The NHTSA confirmed it is looking into Tesla’s non-disclosure agreements.”
The New York Times described the “introduction of a nondisclosure agreement into the relationship between car owner and automaker” as “an unusual practice by an unconventional company whose founder, Elon Musk, has roots in Silicon Valley, not Detroit.” After the NHTSA described the provision as “troublesome”, a Tesla spokesperson told the Times that “‘to remove any doubt,’ the automaker would modify the language of the documents to make clear that the goal ‘is to benefit customers, while not harming us for doing a good deed.’”
In May, meanwhile, CBC picked up a San José Mercury News report that Tesla would “look into allegations that a subcontractor at one of its paint facilities was paid as little as US$5 an hour in an unsafe work environment.”
Americans doing similar work in the same part of the country would average US$52 per hour.
“Ostensibly coming to the U.S. in a supervisory role at a BMW plant in South Carolina,” an employee from Slovenia “instead found himself working in numerous hands-on positions at Tesla’s facility in California, which led him to have many injuries, including two broken legs and a concussion suffered during a third-storey fall,” CBC reported. Musk responded that he “will investigate” the story and “make it right.”