First Fatal Tesla Autopilot Crash May Have Been In January, Not May

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We’ve just heard that the first fatal accident in which Tesla Motors Inc (NASDAQ:TSLA)’s Autopilot system was engaged occurred in January in China rather than in May in Florida. At this time, the automaker claims it doesn’t know if the Autopilot system was engaged, so it’s unclear whether the controversial feature played any role in the crash that killed a driver whose Tesla slammed into a street sweeper at highway speeds early this year.

Tesla car rear-ends street sweeper in China

CCTV reported the deadly accident this morning, and it was quickly picked up by other media outlets. The Chinese media outlet also shared video of the actual crash apparently taken from the camera on the Tesla car. It shows the driver, 23-year-old Gao Yaning, apparently in a relaxed state just before the accident, even singing as his car rapidly approaches the back of the street sweeper. The wreck occurred in Hebei province on a day when the weather was good with clear visibility.

In the video of the crash, it doesn’t look like the Tesla slowed down when approaching the street sweeper, and police reportedly found no indications that the vehicle braked before slamming into it.

Was Tesla’s Autopilot

A Tesla spokesperson told ValueWalk in an email that they are investigating the deadly accident but that they have “no way of knowing” if the Autopilot system was engaged when it occurred. The spokesperson said the damage caused by the crash rendered the car “physically incapable of transmitting log data” to Tesla’s servers.

This is particularly interesting in light of the fact that the automaker seems to always know everything about every accident involving its vehicles. In the wrecks that were reported previously in the U.S. (although they happened after this particular wreck), Tesla was quick to say whether the Autopilot system was engaged. In the case of the crash that killed a driver in Florida, the system was engaged, but in another accident in which the driver survived and blamed the Autopilot feature, the automaker said it had turned off just before the wreck because the driver had taken his hands off the wheel for too long.

Tesla investigating the China accident

Gao’s family sued Tesla and the auto dealer in Beijing that sold him the car in July. The Tesla spokesperson told Reuters that they had “tried repeatedly to work with” the man’s family to figure out the cause of the accident. However, the person also said that his family didn’t provide them with any more information that would enable them to do so.

Here’s the full statement a Tesla spokesperson emailed us about the January accident:

“We were saddened to learn of the death of our customer’s son. We take any incident with our vehicles very seriously and immediately reached out to our customer when we learned of the crash. Because of the damage caused by the collision, the car was physically incapable of transmitting log data to our servers and we therefore have no way of knowing whether or not Autopilot was engaged at the time of the crash. We have tried repeatedly to work with our customer to investigate the cause of the crash, but he has not provided us with any additional information that would allow us to do so.”

This accident in China is already triggering questions about whether Tesla might be sweeping things under the rug. Electrek noted this morning after the news came to light that CEO Elon Musk said as recently as Sunday that there was only one known fatality involving a Tesla vehicle with Autopilot engaged. Clearly if the automaker had been working with Gao’s family for some time, it already knew about the deadly crash and the allegation that Autopilot was involved before Musk made those comments on Sunday.

Will Tesla face non-disclosure accusations again?

This wouldn’t be the first time the automaker has been accused of not disclosing important information. Earlier this year, Tesla was accused of delaying the announcement about the Florida death involving the Autopilot feature.

Things just don’t look good because here again, we have a case of Tesla management not being fully open about fatal crashes with Autopilot. Now they could skate around any accusations about this by emphasizing that they don’t know for sure if Autopilot was engaged in this accident, but the fact remains that an allegation has been made by the family of the man who was killed. As such, this might have been something that should have been disclosed to shareholders. We’ll have to just wait and see.

The good news is that Tesla is rolling out some updates to Autopilot that should improve its performance and hopefully help avoid very many more deaths. There’s been plenty of controversy about the feature, and this January accident will only deepen it. There was even controversy surrounding the way Autopilot was advertised on Tesla‘s Chinese website

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