Tesla was running on autopilot shortly before tractor-trailer accident: Virginia Police

DETROIT – Virginia authorities have determined that a Tesla was operating on its Autopilot system and driving too fast in the moments that led to a crash with a crossing tractor-trailer last July that killed the Tesla driver.

The death of Pablo Teodoro III, 57, is the third since 2016 in which a Tesla TSLA on Autopilot drove under a crossing tractor-trailer, raising questions about the safety of the partially automated system and where it is allowed to operate.

The crash south of Washington remains under investigation by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which sent investigators to Virginia last summer and began a broader investigation into Autopilot more than two years ago.

Fauquier County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Jeffrey Long said Tuesday that investigators determined that Autopilot was operating on Teodoro’s Tesla Model Y by downloading information from the vehicle’s event data recorder.

Sheriff’s investigators used a search warrant in late July to gain access to the recorder. Authorities released some of the findings this week after an Associated Press investigation.

The Tesla was traveling at 70 mph on four-lane U.S. 29 near Opal, going 25 mph over the speed limit of 45 mph in that area, Long said. The road has a median and is accessible via intersections and driveways.

Long said Teodoro took action in the second before the crash but wasn’t sure if that disabled the system. He did not know what action Teodoro took, but said the brakes were applied just a second before impact, causing the vehicle to slow slightly.

He said he could not provide the speed of the crash or say whether Teodoro or the Tesla applied the brakes because his office is cooperating with NHTSA in the ongoing investigation.

Before the accident, the Tesla warned Teodoro to take control of the car because he spotted something in the way. But neither the car, which is equipped with automatic emergency braking, nor Teodoro were able to stop it in time to avoid the accident.

Long said a crash investigator’s analysis of the data recorder “showed that the system detected something on the roadway and sent messages to the driver.”

“Our investigation also determined that the driver would have had sufficient time and distance to avoid the accident if he had followed the speed limit,” Long said in a statement. “The comprehensive investigation revealed that the driver would have had more than sufficient time to brake and even come to a stop.”

The truck driver in the crash was originally charged with reckless driving and creating a traffic stop, Long said, but the charges were dropped in October by the commonwealth’s attorney at the request of the sheriff’s office.

Under Virginia law, a driver forgoes the right of way if he violates the speed limit, Long said.

The tractor-trailer was driving from a rest stop onto the highway at the time of the accident, authorities said.

In October 2021, the head of the National Transportation Safety Board called on Tesla to limit its use of Autopilot and introduce a better system to ensure drivers are paying attention.

Chairman Jennifer Homendy wrote to CEO Elon Musk, pointing out that her agency’s investigation into a similar accident involving a semi-truck in 2016 found that Tesla was using Autopilot to drive its vehicles on roads where it was not designed for safety let drive. An NTSB spokesman said Tuesday that Musk had not responded to Homendy’s letter.

Tesla did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment.

Its website says that Autopilot and a more sophisticated “Full Self Driving” system cannot drive itself and are intended to help drivers be ready to intervene at any time.

With Autopilot, a Tesla can automatically steer, accelerate and brake in its lane, the website says.

In a statement posted on X, formerly Twitter, on Monday, Tesla said safety is higher when Autopilot is engaged.

The Virginia accident brings to 35 the number of Tesla accidents NHTSA has investigated since June 2016. In all cases, the agency suspects the Teslas were driving with a partially automated driving system. At least 17 people have died.

Among the most recent accidents NHTSA is investigating is a head-on collision between a Tesla Model 3 and a Subaru Impreza on July 5 in South Lake Tahoe, California. The driver of the Subaru and a toddler traveling in the Tesla were killed.

NHTSA also sent investigators to a March 15 crash in Halifax County, North Carolina, that injured a 17-year-old student. The State Highway Patrol said at the time that the driver of the 2022 Tesla Model Y, a 51-year-old man, failed to stop for a school bus that displayed all warning devices activated.

A message was left seeking comment from the agency, which has not released the results of its investigation into the Tesla accident.