George Brian McGee, a Florida finance director, was driving home in a Tesla Model S running on Autopilot, a system that can independently steer, brake and accelerate a car, when he dropped his phone during a call and bent down to answer. to look. before.
Neither he nor Autopilot noticed that the road ended and the Model S passed a stop sign and a flashing red light. The car collided with a parked Chevrolet Tahoe, killing a 22-year-old college student, Naibel Benavides.
One of a growing number of fatal accidents involving Tesla cars on autopilot. The case of Mr. McGee is unusual in that he survived and told investigators what had happened: He was distracted and relied on a system that failed to see and brake for a parked car. car in front. Tesla drivers who use Autopilot in other fatal crashes have often died, forcing investigators to piece together the details of the data stored and videos recorded by the cars.
“I was driving and dropped my phone,” Mr McGee told an officer responding to the accident, according to a police camera recording. “I looked down, ran through the stop sign and hit the man’s car.”
The statements of Mr. McGee to investigators, the accident report and court records paint a tragic picture of over-reliance on technology. They also strongly suggest that Autopilot failed at a basic function – automatic emergency braking – that engineers developed years ago. Many newer cars, including models that are much more affordable and less sophisticated than Teslas, can slow down or stop when an accident seems likely.
On Monday, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it had opened a formal investigation into Autopilot. The agency said it was aware of 11 accidents since 2018 involving Teslas that collided with police, fire and other emergency services with flashing lights parked on roads and highways. In one, a Tesla rammed into a fire truck in Indiana in December 2019, killing a passenger in the car and seriously injuring the driver.
Distracted driving can be deadly in any car. But safety experts say Autopilot can encourage distraction by tricking people into thinking their cars are more capable than they are. And there are no safeguards in the system to ensure drivers pay attention to the road and can regain control if something goes wrong.
McGee, who declined to comment through his attorney, told investigators he was on the phone with American Airlines to make a funeral reservation. He called the airline on April 25, 2019 at 9:05 PM. The conversation lasted just over five minutes and ended two seconds after his Model S crashed into the Tahoe, according to a Florida Highway Patrol investigation. Florida law makes it illegal to text while driving, but the state doesn’t prohibit drivers from talking on a portable cell phone except in school or work zones.
Mr. McGee, who was close to his home in Key Largo after driving about 100 miles from his office in Boca Raton, called 911 and then spoke to police officers who responded to the accident. In both sets of recorded conversations, he sounds shocked, but speaks clearly. He said he looked up, saw he was about to hit the Tahoe, and tried to stop the car.
The transition to electric cars
“When I showed up and I looked and saw a black truck — it happened so fast,” he told officers, at one point referring to Autopilot as “stupid cruise control.”
Tesla, the world’s most valuable automaker, and its CEO, Elon Musk, describe Autopilot as a way to make driving easier and safer.
Despite its name, Autopilot does not make Teslas autonomous. The auto industry classifies it, and similar systems offered by General Motors and other companies, as self-driving level 2. Cars that can drive autonomously at all times would be level 5, a distinction no vehicle on sale today. , will almost reach.
Tesla’s critics argue that Autopilot has several weaknesses, including the ability for drivers like Mr. McGee to use it on local roads. Using GPS and software, GM, Ford Motor and other automakers are limiting their systems to divided highways where there are no stop signs, traffic lights or pedestrians.
Tesla owner’s manuals warn customers not to use Autopilot on city streets. “Failure to follow these instructions could result in damage, serious injury, or death,” says the manual for 2019 models.
“The technology exists to limit where Autopilot can work, but Tesla allows drivers to use it on roads where it shouldn’t work,” said Jason K. Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a nonprofit organization. in Washington. “They made a business decision to do that, and it has resulted in avoidable tragedies. That should be furious.”
Musk and Tesla’s General Counsel Ryan McCarthy did not respond to emails requesting comment.
Regulators are investigating other potential shortcomings of the Autopilot. The system, which includes cameras, radar and software, sometimes fails to recognize other vehicles and stationary objects. In July, a Tesla collided with an SUV parked at the site of a previous accident on a highway near San Diego. The driver was on autopilot, fell asleep and later failed a sobriety test, police said. This year, a California couple has sued Tesla over a 2019 crash that killed their 15-year-old son.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is investigating more than two dozen accidents that occurred while Autopilot was in use. The agency said it was aware of at least 10 deaths in those accidents.
A commute ends in tragedy
Mr. McGee, 44, is a managing partner at a small private equity firm, New Water Capital. He bought his Model S, a performance model, in 2019.
On the night of the accident, he left Boca Raton and headed south on major highways. South of Miami, he got on U.S. Route 1, took a narrow toll bridge from the mainland to Key Largo and continued on Card Sound Road, a two-lane highway that ends at County Road 905. McGee had Autopilot on and the speed was set at 44 miles per hour, according to data the police had extracted from the car.
Around the same time, Mrs. Benavides had a date with Dillon Angulo. He drove his mother’s black Tahoe and drove to the broad berm of County Road 905 near Card Sound Road. Mr. Angulo pulled up about 40 feet from the edge of the intersection, parked on a gravel strip and got out. According to the investigation, Ms. Benavides got out of the passenger seat and walked over to the driver’s side.
Data from the Tesla shows that the Model S accelerated from 44 to 60 mph for a few seconds before crashing into the Tahoe. It’s unclear whether Autopilot or Mr. McGee increased the speed. Vehicle data and skid marks indicated that Mr McGee locked onto the brakes less than a second before impact. He told police he couldn’t say how close he was to the intersection when he looked for his phone.
The legacy of Mrs. Benavides has sued Tesla in Miami-Dade County Court, alleging the company’s cars are “defective and unsafe.” Todd Poses, a Miami attorney representing the estate, said Mr. McGee was expected to make a statement in that case. A separate lawsuit filed by the estate against Mr. McGee was settled, Mr. Poses said, but he declined to disclose the terms.
In court, Tesla filed a brief response dismissing the estate’s claims without further elaboration. In similar cases, the company has said the blame rests solely with the drivers of its cars.
As with other accidents involving Autopilot, the system didn’t seem to have done much to make sure Mr. McGee was paying attention to the road.
Tesla recently activated an in-car camera in certain newer models to monitor drivers, but it can’t see in the dark. Tesla owners have posted videos on YouTube showing that the camera sometimes fails to detect when drivers look away from the road and can fool it if they cover the lens. When the camera detects that a Tesla driver is looking away from the road, it will sound a warning but will not disable Autopilot.
GM and Ford systems use infrared cameras to monitor the driver’s eyes. If drivers look away for more than two or three seconds, warnings remind them to look straight ahead. If drivers do not follow the rules, GM and Ford systems will shut down and the driver will be asked to take control of the car.
Ms. Benavides emigrated from Cuba in 2016 and lived with her mother in Miami. She worked at a Walgreens pharmacy and clothing store while attending community college. An older sister, Neima, 34, who is an executor of the estate, said Naibel had been working on improving her English in hopes of earning a college degree.
“She was always smiling and making people laugh,” said Neima Benavides. “Her favorite thing was going to the beach. She would go almost every day and hang out with friends or just sit and read alone.”
Neima Benavides said she hoped the lawsuit would prompt Tesla to make Autopilot safer. “Maybe something can change so other people don’t have to go through this.”
Mrs. Benavides had just set up a date with Mr. Angulo when they went fishing on Key Largo. That afternoon, she texted her sister to let her know that she was having a good time. At 9pm, Mrs. Benavides called her mother from Mr. Angulo’s phone to say she was on her way home. She had lost her phone that day.
During the 911 call, Mr. McGee that a man was lying on the floor, unconscious and bleeding from the mouth. Several times, Mr. McGee said, “Oh, my God,” and yelled, “Help!” When an ambulance attendant asked if the man was the only one injured, Mr. McGee replied, “Yes, he’s the only passenger.”
Mr Angulo was flown to a hospital. He later told investigators that he could not remember the accident or why they had stopped at the intersection.
An emergency medical technician saw a women’s sandal under the Tahoe and called on others to search the area for another victim. “Please tell me no,” you hear Mr. McGee say in the police video. “Please tell me no.”
The body of Mrs. Benavides was found about 25 meters away.