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The driver of a Tesla Inc. car that slammed into a fire truck in Southern California last year was looking down at what appeared to be a mobile phone while the car’s Autopilot feature was engaged, according to a witness report and other data released by investigators.
The National Transportation Safety Board, which is examining several Tesla accidents involving vehicle automation, on Tuesday released numerous preliminary reports, including a statement from a witness to the Jan. 22, 2018, collision. The Tesla driver told investigators he wasn’t using his phone at the time and was looking forward, but may have been holding a coffee or bagel.
The Tesla driver had engaged the car’s so-called Autopilot system, a driver-assist mode that can steer and follow traffic in certain conditions. Autopilot had been active for 13 minutes and 48 seconds before the crash and the driver’s hands weren’t on the steering wheel for the majority of that time, according to data Tesla provided to NTSB.
The crash is sure to draw attention to whether growing use of automated driving functions, which may help prevent some accidents, also can introduce new risks. There have been at least three fatal accidents in the U.S. in which Tesla vehicles were on Autopilot. NTSB plans to announce the probable cause of the 2018 Southern California accident on Wednesday, the agency said in a tweet.
Tesla warns its drivers that they should remain attentive while using its automation and the vehicle warned the driver in the California crash to engage the steering wheel, NTSB said. The driver said he was touching the bottom of the steering wheel as he approached the fire truck.
Tesla didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Tesla driver was uninjured. The safety board is examining safety implications of growing use of vehicle automation and is also studying how Tesla’s flammable lithium-ion batteries have burned after severe impacts.
A witness to the crash on a freeway in Culver City reported seeing the Tesla speed into the fire truck without braking.
“I could see the driver and I saw his head leaned far forward as he appeared to be looking down at a cell phone or other device he was holding in his left hand,” according to the witness’s written statement released by NTSB. “The driver’s positioning struck me as odd and concerning because it was clear to me he was very focused on his phone and wasn’t watching the road ahead at all, even though he was quickly approaching the stopped fire engine.”
The NTSB found no indication that the Tesla driver had been texting or making a call at the time, but couldn’t determine whether the phone was being used for other purposes.
The Tesla driver was traveling in a left-hand carpool lane on Interstate 405 behind a large SUV or pickup, the Tesla driver told NTSB investigators. That vehicle changed lanes just before reaching the fire truck, which had stopped in response to a previous accident. The Tesla driver said he was looking forward, but was unable to see the fire truck with enough time to avoid the crash, according to the NTSB.