But one driver's potential mistake can't be ignored.
It's been nearly two years since 38-year-old Walter Huang, a software engineer working for Apple, was in a fatal car accident while behind the wheel of his Tesla Model X. The accident occurred on the morning of March 23, 2018 as Huang was driving to work on California's Highway 101.
He ended up colliding with a safety barrier while the vehicle was engaged in the Autopilot driver-assistance system. His family has since filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Tesla and the state of California.
However, Reuters has learned from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration's investigation that Huang had reported that on prior trips with Autopilot activated along the same stretch of highway, the vehicle would steer away from the highway towards an area between the highway ramp and the lane. That area is known as the "gore area" and it's a moving violation to cross into that section of road.
The crash investigators have been analyzing data taken from Huang's past trips and they show he took corrective action after Autopilot steered toward that forbidden area. However, in the final six seconds prior to Huang's fatal crash, his hands were not detected on the steering wheel. In fact, his hands were not detected on the wheel for a third of the time 18 minutes prior to the crash. Nor was there evidence of him hitting the brakes or taking any sort of evasive action.
The system did issue two visual alerts for hands-off driving and a single auditory alert. Another troubling discovery is evidence Huang was using his smartphone.
According to the NHTSB, "most players have both hands on the phone to support the device and manipulate game actions" but added the log data "does not provide enough information to ascertain whether the Tesla driver was holding the phone or how interactive he was with the game at the time of the crash." The NHTSB is concerned Tesla owners engaged in Autopilot are becoming "disengaged from the driving task."
But what remains a mystery, assuming the agency's findings are correct, is why was Huang playing a game on his phone on a specific stretch of familiar highway he knew to be troublesome? The NHTSB has scheduled a hearing for later this month to hopefully determine the most probable cause of the crash.
As of this writing, Tesla had no comment.