By Bernie Woodall
(Reuters) – A digital video disc player was found in the Tesla car that was on autopilot when its driver was killed in a collision with a truck in May, Florida Highway Patrol officials said on Friday.
“There was a portable DVD player in the vehicle,” said Sergeant Kim Montes of the FHP in a telephone interview. She said there was no camera found, mounted on the dash or of any kind, in the wreckage.
A lawyer for a truck driver involved in the accident with the Tesla told Reuters his investigators had spoken to a witness who said the DVD player was playing a “Harry Potter” video after the accident, but the lawyer was unable to verify that beyond the witness account.
“As to the video, there was a witness who came to the scene immediately after the accident occurred, and we can’t verify it at this point,” said Paul Weekley of Tampa, the lawyer for the truck driver. “But what we have been told is that he saw a Harry Potter video still playing when he got to the scene.”
Lawyers for the family of the victim, 40-year-old Joshua Brown, released a statement Friday saying the family is cooperating with the investigations “and hopes that information learned from this tragedy will trigger further innovation which enhances the safety of everyone on the roadways.”
The statement describes the accident as having been “caused by a semi tractor-trailer which crossed a divided highway and caused the fatal collision with Josh’s Tesla.”
The questions surrounding why the 2015 Model S Brown was driving did not stop for the truck, and whether Brown was watching the road at the time are critical for Tesla Motors Inc. The electric car maker is facing a preliminary inquiry by federal regulators over the safety of the Model S Autopilot system that was engaged at the time of the crash.
Tesla shares fell in after hours trading Thursday after the fatality was disclosed, but rebounded to close up nearly 2 per cent in trading Friday.
The Autopilot system allows the car to keep itself in a lane, maintain speed and operate for a limited time without a driver doing the steering.
Tesla said in a statement Friday, “Autopilot is by far the most advanced driver assistance system on the road, but it does not turn a Tesla into an autonomous vehicle and does not allow the driver to abdicate responsibility.”
It could be weeks before officials make a final determination of the cause of the crash, the first known fatality of a Model S driver while using Autopilot.
INFORMATION FROM ‘BLACK BOX’
The FHP’s Sergeant Montes said a Tesla engineer downloaded the information from the “black box” and shared it with FHP investigators.
The FHP has the ability to download information from newer vehicles about how the vehicle was being driven before a crash. But it does not have the ability to download information from Tesla’s data system, Montes said.
Officials from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration were alerted by Tesla about the crash, and NHTSA officials first contacted the FHP last week, Montes said.
Weekley, the lawyer for the truck driver, Frank Baressi, 62, of Palm Harbor near St. Petersburg, said the Model S’s data recorder had been removed before his investigators were able to see it, he said.
Brown was a Tesla enthusiast and a former Navy SEAL who ran a technology company in Ohio, according to social media accounts and his company’s website.
A YouTube video account belonging to a Joshua Brown had a recently posted video showing a Tesla Model S automatically able to avoid a truck that veered into its lane.
No citations have been issued, but the initial accident report from the FHP indicates that Baressi “failed to yield right-of-way.”
Baressi said the impact of the Model S “lifted the trailer up and jolted the heck out of it when he went under it. It sheared the top of the car right off.”
Weekley said that the top third of the Model S was sheared off the sedan while the rest of it went under the trailer and traveled another 700 feet on the road and 200 more feet off the paved surface before coming to rest.
‘GAVE IT THE GAS’
Baressi, an independent owner-operator, was hauling a half-load of blueberries when the 18-wheeler he was driving made the a left turn, attempting to cross the eastbound lanes of U.S. Highway 27 Alternate near Williston, Florida.
Baressi told Reuters on Friday that he had waited to allow another car to go by, then was making the turn when he first saw the Tesla.
“I saw him just cresting the hill so I gave it the gas,” said Baressi, who said the Tesla was in the left of two eastbound lanes, or the passing lane.
But, he said, by the time the Tesla struck the white trailer carrying the blueberries, “he was in the slow (right) lane … I thought he had a heart attack or something. I don’t know why he went over to the slow lane when he had to have seen me.”
Tesla said on Thursday that the white trailer was not easy for the car’s cameras to distinguish from the bright Florida afternoon sky.
An FHP report said the crash occurred on a sunny Saturday afternoon. It was about 4:50 p.m. local time on May 7, according to the initial traffic report of the crash.
(Reporting by Bernie Woodall in Detroit; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Mary Milliken)