Driver in 2018 fatal Mountain View Tesla crash was playing video game, NTSB says

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Wednesday, February 26, 2020
Driver in fatal Mountain View Tesla crash was playing video game, NTSB says
The National Transportation Safety Board says Walter Huang, the driver of a Tesla SUV who died in a fiery Silicon Valley crash two years ago, was playing a video game on his smartphone at the time while his car was using the Autopilot feature.

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. (KGO) -- Federal regulators say a driver bears some responsibility for the Tesla Autopilot crash that took his life in Mountain View nearly two years ago.

"You can't read a book, you can't watch a movie or a TV show, you can't text, and you can't play video games and yet that's precisely what we found that this driver was doing," said National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Robert Sumwalt. But, the board had plenty of criticism to go around, in their final hearing on the accident. The board criticized the driver, Tesla, the CHP, Cal Trans, cell phone makers, and federal oversight agencies. Bottom line, if you have a Tesla and use Autopilot, you have to stay alert.

RELATED: Tesla's Autopilot feature questioned in deadly South Bay crash, NTSB report says

38-year-old Apple engineer Walter Huang died in Mountain View, at the left exit for Highway 85 off 101 south. His Tesla Model X's autopilot steered him out of the lane and into a safety barrier that had been damaged eleven days before.

At Tuesday's hearing in Washington, the NTSB focused on Tesla's Autopilot being a Beta system, not fully developed; yet drivers are relying on it, even at high speeds and in heavy traffic.

TIMELINE: ABC7 investigates deadly accident on Highway 101 in Mountain View

"We're basically requiring the consumer in this case to be a test driver," said NTSB Member Michael Graham. "And I don't believe they ever received any training to be a test driver like I was a test pilot and actually received training, is that correct?"

NTSB Investigator Don Karol answered, "That is correct."

Two days after the crash, investigators drove the same route Huang took. The lane line fades on the left. The Autopilot in Huang's Model X followed a bolder line and straight into that traffic barrier. As the I-Team's Dan Noyes first reported in 2018, Huang's family said he complained that the autopilot steered toward that barrier on several occasions, as recently as four days before the crash.

RELATED: I-TEAM EXCLUSIVE: Tesla crash in September showed similarities to fatal Mountain View accident

The NTSB Chairman said, "You would think that with the knowledge that this is something that my car is going to act pretty squirrelly on, that maybe at least if I'm playing a game for the rest of my ride, maybe I should be at least more vigilant at this particular location."

Cell phone records for Huang's iPhone 8-plus show he was active on the "Three Kingdoms" video game, his hands off the steering wheel in the six seconds before impact, and that he was on the game driving to work each day that week.

The Huang family attorney emailed this statement Tuesday: "We believe Mr. Huang was using Autopilot in a foreseeable manner, given the system's claimed capabilities and the way Tesla encouraged its customers to use it."

I-TEAM EXCLUSIVE: Victim who died in Tesla crash had complained about Autopilot

The board criticized Tesla for not designing a system that better monitors driver alertness, and for failing to test its Autopilot in more real world situations at higher speeds and varied obstacles.

"I think for my staff and myself, there's nothing more disappointing than investigating a crash, coming up with a good solution and having, in Tesla's case, no response," testified Dr. Robert Malloy, Director of the NTSB's Officer of Highway Safety.

The board faulted the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for lack of oversight, and state agencies for another big failure. A Prius driver hit that same barrier at 70 miles an hour and waked away, 11 days before Huang died. But the CHP did not report the damage to CalTrans. Highway workers eventually put up some cones in the area, but did not fix the safety cushion or "crash attenuator" before Walter Huang's Tesla slammed into it.

NTSB Investigator Dr. Thomas Barth said, "Had the previous collision that happened prior to this one not collapsed the attenuator and had it been operational, the driver would have likely survived."

Director of Communications for California Highway Patrol Fran Clader said:

"The mission of the California Highway Patrol (CHP) is to provide the highest level of safety, service and security to the people of California. In keeping with our mission of saving lives, the CHP has a long history of working closely with our traffic safety partners, including on this investigation with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), to improve the state's transportation system. The CHP continually evaluates it operations and procedures and makes improvements where necessary."

Walter Huang's widow is suing Tesla and the State of California. One other point: the NTSB is pushing for cell phone makers to set a new default mode, that phones lock out if a car is in motion.

Read full statement from Huang family attorney below:

Mr. Huang was using Autopilot where Tesla told its customers it was safe to use. The Autopilot in Mr. Huang's Tesla failed to perform according to its claimed capabilities. Instead of keeping Mr. Huang's Model X in a safe lane of travel, Tesla's Autopilot system moved his car out of its lane and into the gore point off the roadway. Then, rather than brake the car, the Autopilot accelerated Mr. Huang's Model X and caused it to crash at high speed into a fixed highway barrier.
Regarding the issue of driver distraction, Tesla led the public to believe its Autopilot would operate safely on the highway at the location where Mr. Huang's crash occurred. We believe Mr. Huang was using Autopilot in a foreseeable manner, given the system's claimed capabilities and the way Tesla encouraged its customers to use it.

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