A Twin Cities man whose Tesla rolled over into a central Minnesota marsh said Monday that he’s to blame, and not the autopilot technology, for the luxury vehicle suddenly accelerating before the crash landing.
David L. Clark, 58, of Eden Prairie, said he was driving Saturday evening before sunset on a country road 18 miles northeast of Willmar when the crash occurred, the Kandiyohi County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement Sunday.
Clark and four adults in the Tesla S model, which landed on its roof, were slightly hurt.
In a statement issued the next day, the Sheriff’s Office gave this description of the crash along eastbound 172nd Avenue NE.: “Clark stated that when he engaged the autopilot feature that the vehicle suddenly accelerated, causing the car to leave the roadway and overturn.”
A statement from Tesla issued Monday cast doubt on that scenario, saying the company has “no reason to believe [the autopilot feature] worked other than as designed.”
Clark told the Star Tribune on Monday that he is trying to get the Sheriff’s Office to change its account to what he says actually happened “as we were traveling back from our lake place” with two of his nephews and others.
However, Chief Sheriff’s Deputy Greg Stehn declined late Monday afternoon to address what Clark is contending, saying that the crash remains under investigation and that information will be filed with the county attorney’s office for possible charges.
In an e-mail sent late Sunday to the responding deputy, Quinton Pomplun, and shared with the Star Tribune, Clark said, “I did not intend to put the blame [on] Tesla or the autopilot system.”
Clark wrote that “to the best of my recollection, I had engaged the autopilot system, but then I had disengaged it by stepping on the accelerator. I then remember looking up and seeing the sharp left turn, which I was accelerating into. I believe we started to make the turn, but then felt the car give way and lose its footing.”
The deputy’s response, also shared by Clark with the Star Tribune, read, “With the information we talked about [at the scene] I was in the understanding that the vehicle was in autopilot, based on how you explained it.” The deputy added that he intended to update his reports.
Tesla offers cooperation
The autopilot feature uses cameras, radar and computers to detect objects and automatically brake if the car is about to hit something. It also can steer the car to keep it centered in its lane.
Other carmakers offer vehicle features akin to autopilot, but not to the degree of autonomy in Tesla’s technology. For example, Mercedes-Benz has a steering-free mode, but it requires hand contact with the steering wheel.
In a statement issued Monday, Tesla said it is “working to establish the facts of the incident and have offered our full cooperation to the local authorities. We have not yet established whether the vehicle’s autopilot feature was activated and have no reason to believe [it] worked other than as designed.”
Other “sudden acceleration” crashes have been attributed by motorists to the autopilot technology. Electrek, an industry website that focuses on alternative transportation advances, has reported that data logs from the vehicles have often revealed that the drivers were actually responsible.
Tesla’s statement responding to the Minnesota crash emphasized that whenever drivers activate the autopilot, “They are reminded of their responsibility to remain engaged and to be prepared to take immediate action at all times, and drivers must acknowledge their responsibility to do so before autopilot is enabled.”
Tesla spokeswoman Keely Sulprizio declined to make any company officials available for questions.
A federal lawsuit filed in California is seeking class-action status for other claims of sudden acceleration made by Tesla motorists in various states.
In May 2016, a motorist near Gainesville, Fla., was killed when his Tesla collided with a semitrailer truck while in the self-driving mode. The crash brought intense scrutiny on the technology and whether the car’s manufacturer, based in Palo Alto, Calif., overstated the capability of the autopilot feature.
Federal investigators reviewed the crash and chose not to impose a recall, concluding there was no safety defect involved in the collision. At the same time, regulators warned the vehicle’s operators to not treat the semiautonomous cars as if they are fully self-driving.
Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482