New documents released by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) this week reveal the agonising experience of one of the drivers involved in the fatal crash with a Tesla Model 3 in Delray Beach, Florida in 2019. The Tesla crash in Florida is one of two recent cases that have captured the federal government’s attention because the circumstances involved the company’s Autopilot technology.
The NTSB documents contain an interview with Richard Wood, a truck driver that was driving a tractor-trailer on March 1 in 2019. That morning, Wood pulled the tractor-trailer from a driveway and began to cross to the other side of a highway with light traffic. Jeremy Banner, the Tesla Model 3 driver, was heading to work and set his speed about 70 mph, even though the speed limit on the highway is 55. Banner had the Autopilot feature activated on his Tesla.
According to Wood, he saw two sets of car lights coming toward him but thought he had time to make it across. While Banner was travelling at 70 mph, Wood was driving at approximately 11 mph.
“It was dark and the cars looked like they was back further than what they was,” Wood told the NTSB investigators.
Moments later, tragedy struck, although Wood didn’t fully realise what had happened at first. Wood said that he “felt a push against my trailer” and got out of the vehicle. He saw debris stuck on the side of the trailer and a scruff mark down the side. Since it was dark, Wood couldn’t see much, and initially believed he was involved in a hit and run.
Upon closer inspection, he found that there were pieces of the Tesla’s windshield stuck on the trailer that looked pink, which led him to believe that the other driver was hurt. The truth doesn’t set in until another driver in a pickup truck approached him and asked what happened.
“And this guy in this pickup truck come up and goes, ‘are you the guy that drives this tractor?’ I said, ‘yeah.’ And he goes, ‘that dude didn’t make it,’” Wood recalled. “I said, ‘what are you talking about?’ He goes, ‘that guy’ – he goes, ‘it sheared the whole roof off his car.’ He goes, ‘he didn’t make it.’ And I just – I went downhill after that.”
In the end, Banner’s car drove underneath Wood’s tractor-trailer, which sheared off the Model 3’s roof and killed Banner. Wood didn’t see Banner because the momentum from the Model 3 moved the car so far down the road that it was out of sight for the truck driver. Data from Tesla’s computer indicate that Banner hit the breaks less than a second before the crash.
In a preliminary report, the NTSB stated that neither the preliminary data nor the videos from the accident indicate that the driver or the Autopilot executed evasive manoeuvres.
After Wood interacted with the pickup truck driver, he told NTSB investigators that he went back to his truck and just sat there until the police arrived.
“I was just shaking,” Wood said, adding that, “And that’s all I’ve been thinking about since.”
The Delray Beach crash investigation is currently ongoing. In a news release, the NTSB stated that a final report on the crash, including the findings and probable cause, would be released in the coming weeks.
In addition to the Delray Beach crash, the NTSB also released documents related to another ongoing investigation centered on the crash of a Tesla Model X in Mountain View, California in 2018. The driver in that case, an Apple engineer named Walter Huang, died when his Tesla slammed into a concrete barrier on a Silicon Valley highway. Huang had the Autopilot feature on his Tesla Model X activated when he crashed.
The NTSB documents reveal that Huang had told his wife about the Model X’s Autopilot and said that the feature had malfunctioned at that particular section of the highway on other occasions. The NTSB will begin deliberations over findings, recommendations and probable cause related to the case at its Feb. 25 public board meeting.
On its website, Tesla claims that Autopilot features are designed to assist users with the most burdensome parts of driving. Autopilot enables cars to steer, accelerate and brake automatically within their driving lanes. Nonetheless, Tesla states that current Autopilot features require “active driver supervision” and do not make the vehicle autonomous.