When Joshua Brown's Tesla Model S fatally collided with a tractor trailer in May while running on autopilot, it was believed to be the first death involving a semi-autonomous or autonomous vehicle. Brown's fatal crash was the impetus for an investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Now, reports from China indicate that his may not be the first case of someone dying while using autopilot.
On Wednesday China Central Television (CCTV) revealed that a 23-year-old named Gao Yaning died in a crash in January on a highway in the province of Hebei; he was driving a Model S sedan that belonged to his family. Video of the crash broadcast by CCTV shows the car slamming into the back of a street sweeper, which was moving slowly along the side of the road.
Chinese news outlets have been reporting that autopilot was activated when the collision occurred.
A Tesla spokesperson reached by email said the company was saddened by the death, but that it couldn't say for certain whether autopilot was on when the crash happened:
Because of the damage caused by the collision, the car was physically incapable of transmitting log data to our servers and we therefore have no way of knowing whether or not Autopilot was engaged at the time of the crash. We have tried repeatedly to work with our customer to investigate the cause of the crash, but he has not provided us with any additional information that would allow us to do so.
The spokesperson declined to answer further questions. Reuters reports that Gao's family launched a lawsuit in Beijing in July against both Tesla and the dealer that sold the car.
The whole thing is reminiscent of a couple other (fortunately non-deadly) crashes in the U.S. this summer where drivers and Tesla have disputed whether autopilot was active when the various collisions occurred. And while autopilot has also reportedly saved lives, the recent crashes have also raised questions about its safety.
This report comes just a couple days after Tesla announced an update to its autopilot system, which most notably involves "the use of more advanced signal processing to create a picture of the world using the onboard radar," rather than relying more heavily on outfitted vehicles' onboard cameras. Tesla CEO Elon Musk told reporters that the new system would probably have prevented Brown's death in May.
Ethan Chiel is a reporter for Fusion, writing mostly about the internet and technology. You can (and should) email him at firstname.lastname@example.org