Tesla Model X veers off highway into concrete barrier, kills driver

Occurred: March 2018

A Tesla driven to work by Apple engineer Wei Lun 'Walter' Huang veered into a highway safety barrier in Mountain Valley, California, caught fire and was rear-ended by two other cars. 

Huang's car had drifted from a faded lane line and crashed into a highway barrier at 71 mph. The 38-year-old driver died from his injuries in Stanford Hospital. He had been reputedly playing games on his mobile phone in his car.

A few days after the crash, Tesla acknowledged in a blog post that the car's Autopilot driver-assistance system had been engaged at the time of the crash and that Huang's hands were not detected on the wheel for six seconds prior to the collision. The company also claimed Autopilot 'unequivocally makes the world safer for the vehicle occupants, pedestrians and cyclists.' 

However, Tesla's move was seen to have violated an agreement between the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the automaker that Tesla would not comment on any crash during the course of the investigation. Accordingly, the NTSB removed the car maker as a party to its investigation of the crash.

The incident raised questions about the accuracy and reliability of Autopilot, and allegedly inflated marketing claims made by Tesla and its CEO Elon Musk about the product. 

Tesla later updated its software to remind drivers to touch the wheel more often and, ideally, remain attentive even with Autopilot enabled. 

In April 2019, Huang's family filed a lawsuit against Tesla and California state alleging that Tesla’s Autopilot driver assistance system misread lane lines and failed to detect the safety barrier, in which the car accelerated rather than braked. The suit also accused Tesla of 'defective' product design, and false advertising.

A 2020 NTSB investigation concluded that Autopilot was one of the 'probable' causes of the crash, and that Huang had been 'overly confident' in the system's capabilities, evident in the fact that he had been playing a mobile game while using Autopilot before the crash. It also accused the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) of taking an overly hands-off approach to regulating automated driving systems.

In January 2023, Tesla senior engineer Ashok Elluswamy testified during the trial that a 2016 Tesla video used to promote Autopilot had been staged to show capabilities like stopping at a red light and accelerating at a green light that the system did not have. 

In April 2024, Tesla settled the suit with Huang's family a day before the trial was set to begin. Details of the settlement were not disclosed. Tesla's actions were seen to potentially create a legal precedent for self-driving car incident liability.

Tesla faces multiple lawsuits involving Autopilot.

Operator: Walter Huang
Developer: Tesla

Country: USA

Sector: Automotive

Purpose: Automate steering, acceleration, braking

Technology: Driver assistance system
Issue: Accuracy/reliability; Safety

Transparency: Black box; Marketing

Legal, regulatory 👩🏼‍⚖️