A Tesla electric vehicle is seen at a Tesla electric vehicle charging station at Willow Festival shopping plaza parking lot in Northbrook, Ill., Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022. A Tesla driver who had set his car on Autopilot was “distracted” by his phone before reportedly hitting and killing a motorcyclist Friday on Highway 522, according to a new police report. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

A Tesla electric vehicle is seen at a Tesla electric vehicle charging station at Willow Festival shopping plaza parking lot in Northbrook, Ill., Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022. A Tesla driver who had set his car on Autopilot was “distracted” by his phone before reportedly hitting and killing a motorcyclist Friday on Highway 522, according to a new police report. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

After Stanwood man’s death, feds open probe into Tesla Autopilot feature

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was investigating Tesla’s recall on its vehicles with the Autopilot function.

MALTBY — Video evidence may show what a Tesla driver was doing when he crashed into and killed a Stanwood motorcyclist while allegedly using the car’s Autopilot feature, a Snohomish County deputy prosecutor said Wednesday.

Deputy prosecutor Tobin Darrow said he was considering a charge of vehicular homicide with disregard for the safety of others in the death of Jeffrey Nissen on Highway 522 last month.

“You’re not supposed to be on your phone at all when you’re driving, it’s highly dangerous behavior,” Darrow said. “Letting this car do the thinking, that’s a problem.”

Authorities had applied to serve a search warrant on the car that could reveal footage leading up to the crash, as recorded by the Tesla itself.

Meanwhile, less than a week after the crash, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opened an investigation into Tesla’s December recall of its cars with the Autopilot function. The new investigation was not necessarily connected to Nissen’s death.

Around 3:45 p.m. April 19, a Snohomish man in a 2022 Tesla Model S was driving home behind Nissen, 28, at Fales Road in Maltby, according to a police report.

The driver, 56, had reportedly activated Tesla’s Autopilot, advertised as “an advanced driver assistance system that enhances safety and convenience behind the wheel.” State troopers said the driver was using his phone when he heard a bang as his car lurched forward and crashed into the motorcycle in front of him.

Nissen, of Stanwood, was ejected from his blue 2003 Yamaha R6. The Tesla came to rest on top of him, according to authorities.

The Tesla driver exited his car and called police. Nissen died at the scene. Troopers arrested the driver for investigation of vehicular homicide while driving distracted.

Troopers wrote the driver’s inattention while his car was on Autopilot — “putting the trust in the machine to drive for him” — gave them probable cause to arrest the man, according to the report. He was booked into the Snohomish County Jail. The man posted $100,000 bail and was released from jail April 21.

Washington State Patrol spokesperson Chris Loftis provided no updates on the case this week, noting it was still under investigation. Loftis said he hoped the agency would soon have definitive findings to “aid in that national conversation about the juxtaposition of technological capacity, personal responsibility, and roadway risks.”

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration pushed Tesla to recall its vehicles after a two-year investigation into its Autopilot system. In December, Tesla recalled all of its vehicles equipped with any version of Autopilot, stating insufficient driver controls to prevent misuse. The recall affected over 2 million vehicles. It was unclear if the Snohomish driver’s Tesla had been updated with new software from the recall.

Tesla’s Autopilot function simultaneously uses “traffic-aware” cruise control and Autosteer. Traffic-aware cruise control is an adaptive cruise control intended to maintain the car’s set speed while slowing or accelerating as necessary. Autosteer is designed to detect lane markings and the presence of other nearby vehicles.

The federal agency identified at least 13 fatal crashes where Tesla drivers misused the Autopilot system, according to the investigation.

In the earlier probe, the Office of Defects Investigation looked into 467 crashes involving Teslas on Autopilot. In 211 of those crashes the front of a Tesla struck another vehicle or obstacle with “adequate time” for an attentive driver to react. In 111, the car departed from the road after the driver inadvertently disengaged Autosteer. And in another 145 crashes, the Tesla departed from low-traction roads, such as those wet from rain, according to the report.

Federal auto regulators analyzed 489 other crashes involving Teslas. In those cases, there was not enough data to make an assessment, the other driver was at fault, Autopilot was not in use, or the crash was unrelated to potential Autopilot issues.

The traffic administration reported the Autopilot system invited “greater driver confidence” in the system’s capabilities than it deserved.

“This mismatch of weak usage controls and high control authority was evident in these crash categories, which included indications of driver disengagement from the driving task,” federal authorities wrote.

Tesla’s Autopilot and Full Self-Driving Capability are “intended for use with a fully attentive driver, who has their hands hands on the wheel and is prepared to take over at any moment,” according to the company’s website.

A day before the crash near Maltby, Tesla slashed the price of its Full Self-Driving software from $12,000 to $8,000.

Tesla representatives did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Nissen’s family did not respond to an interview request from The Daily Herald.

An online fundraiser for Nissen’s funeral expenses created by his sister, Jenessa, had raised about $5,800 of its $6,000 goal Friday.

Jonathan Tall: 425-339-3486; jonathan.tall@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @snocojon.

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