George Brian McGee, a Florida finance manager, was driving home in a Tesla Model S on autopilot, a system that can self-steer, brake, and accelerate a car when he dropped his phone while on a call and bent down to see it .
Neither he nor the autopilot noticed that the road ended and the Model S drove past a stop sign and red light. The car crashed into a parked Chevrolet Tahoe, killing 22-year-old college student Naibel Benavides.
The case of Mr McGee, one of a growing number of fatal accidents involving Tesla autopilot cars, is unusual in that he survived and told investigators what happened: he got distracted and trusted a system that did one parked did not see and braked car in front of it. Tesla drivers who used the autopilot in other fatal accidents were often killed, so investigators had to compile the details from the stored data and videos recorded by the cars.
“I drove and dropped my cell phone,” Mr. McGee told an officer who was responding to the accident, according to a police camera tape. “I looked down, ran over the stop sign, and hit the guy’s car.”
Mr McGee’s testimony to investigators, the accident report and court records paint a tragic picture of over-reliance on technology. They also strongly suggest that autopilot failed a fundamental function – automatic emergency braking – that engineers developed years ago. Many newer cars, including models that are much cheaper and less sophisticated than Tesla’s, can slow down or stop if an accident is likely.
On Monday, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced it had opened a formal investigation into Autopilot. The agency said it was aware of eleven Teslas accidents since 2018, which collided with flashing lights parked on streets and highways in police, fire engines and other emergency vehicles. In one of them, a Tesla plowed into a fire truck in Indiana in December 2019, killing a passenger in the car and seriously injuring the driver.
Distracted driving can be fatal in any car. However, safety experts say autopilot can add distraction by tricking people into thinking that their cars are more capable than them. And there are no safeguards in the system to ensure that drivers can watch the road and regain control if something goes wrong.
Mr McGee, who refused to comment through his attorney, told investigators that he called American Airlines to make reservations for a flight to a funeral. He called the airline on April 25, 2019 at 9:05 p.m. The call lasted just over five minutes and ended two seconds after his Model S crashed in the Tahoe, according to a Florida Highway Patrol investigation. Florida law makes it illegal to text messages while driving, but the state doesn’t prohibit drivers from talking on a handheld, except in school or work areas.
Mr McGee, who was near his Key Largo home after driving about 160 miles from his Boca Raton office, called 911 and then spoke to police officers who responded to the accident. In both of the recorded conversations he sounds shaken, but speaks clearly. He said he looked up, saw he was about to meet the Tahoe, and tried to stop the car.
The switch to electric cars
“When I showed up and saw a black truck – it was going so fast,” he told the officers and at one point referred to the autopilot as a “stupid cruise control”.
Tesla, the world’s most valuable automaker, and its CEO Elon Musk describe autopilot as a way to make driving easier and safer.
Despite its name, Autopilot doesn’t make Teslas autonomous. The auto industry rates it and similar systems offered by General Motors and other companies as Level 2 self-driving. Cars that can drive autonomously at any time would be level 5, an award that no vehicle that is sold today even comes close.
Tesla critics claim that autopilot has several weaknesses, including the ability for drivers like Mr. McGee to use it on local roads. With the help of GPS and software, GM, Ford Motor and other automakers are restricting their systems to divided highways with no stop signs, traffic lights or pedestrians.
Tesla’s manuals warn customers not to use the autopilot on city streets. “Failure to follow these instructions could result in damage, serious injury, or death,” states the 2019 model manual.
“The technology exists to limit where autopilot can operate, but Tesla allows drivers to use it on roads where it shouldn’t be,” said Jason K. Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety. a nonprofit group in Washington. “You made a corporate decision to do this, and it has resulted in avoidable tragedies. That should be annoying. “
Mr. Musk and Tesla’s Associate General Counsel, Ryan McCarthy, did not respond to emails asking for comments.
Regulators are investigating other potential autopilot failures. The system, which includes cameras, radar and software, sometimes fails to recognize other vehicles and stationary objects. In July, a Tesla collided with a sports utility vehicle parked at the scene of the accident on a highway near San Diego. The driver had switched on the autopilot, fell asleep and later failed a sobriety test, the police said. That year, a California couple sued Tesla in connection with a 2019 accident that killed their 15-year-old son.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is investigating more than two dozen accidents that occurred while the autopilot was being used. The agency said it was aware of at least 10 deaths in these accidents.
A commute ends in tragedy
Mr. McGee, 44, is a managing partner at a small private equity firm, New Water Capital. In 2019 he bought his Model S, a performance model.
On the night of the accident, he left Boca Raton and drove south on major highways. South of Miami, he took US Route 1, took a narrow toll bridge from the mainland to Key Largo, and continued on Card Sound Road, a two-lane road that ends at 905 County Road. Mr. McGee had autopilot on and the speed was set at 44 mph, according to data the police took from the car.
Around the same time, Ms. Benavides went on a date with Dillon Angulo. He drove his mother’s black Tahoe and turned onto the wide shoulder of 905 County Road near Card Sound Road. Mr. Angulo stopped about fourteen yards from the intersection, parked on a gravel strip, and got out. According to the investigation, Ms. Benavides got up from the passenger seat and walked over to the driver’s side.
Data from Tesla shows the Model S accelerated from 44 to 60 mph for a few seconds before crashing into the Tahoe. It’s unclear whether autopilot or Mr. McGee increased the speed. Vehicle data and skid marks showed that Mr. McGee was stuck on the brakes less than a second before impact. He told police that he couldn’t tell how close he was to the intersection when he started looking for his phone.
Ms. Benavides’ estate has sued Tesla in Miami-Dade County District Court, claiming the company’s cars are “broken and unsafe”. Todd Poses, a Miami attorney representing the estate, said Mr. McGee is expected to testify on the case. A separate lawsuit the estate filed against Mr. McGee has been settled, Mr. Poses said, but he did not want to disclose the terms.
Tesla filed a brief response in court in which the claims to the estate were disputed without further explanation. In similar cases, the company has stated that the blame lies solely with the drivers of its cars.
As with other autopilot accidents, the system didn’t seem to have done much to ensure Mr. McGee was paying attention to the road.
Tesla recently activated a car camera on certain newer models to monitor the driver, but it cannot see in the dark. Tesla owners have posted videos on YouTube showing that sometimes the camera doesn’t notice when drivers are looking away from the road and that if they cover the lens it can be fooled. When the camera detects that a Tesla driver is looking away from the road, an audible warning sounds but does not switch off the autopilot.
GM and Ford systems use infrared cameras to monitor drivers’ eyes. If the driver looks away for more than two or three seconds, warnings will remind you to look straight ahead. If drivers fail to do so, the GM and Ford systems will shut down and instruct drivers to take control of the car.
Ms. Benavides emigrated from Cuba in 2016 and lived with her mother in Miami. She worked in a Walgreens pharmacy and clothing store while attending community college. An older sister, Neima, 34, who is an estate administrator, said Naibel had been working on improving her English in hopes of getting a college degree.
“She always laughed and made people laugh,” said Neima Benavides. “Her favorite pastime was going to the beach. She went almost every day and met with friends or just sat alone and read. “
Neima Benavides said she hoped the lawsuit would move Tesla to make autopilot safer. “Maybe something can change so that others don’t have to go through it.”
Ms. Benavides had just started dating Mr. Angulo when they went fishing in Key Largo. That afternoon she texted her sister saying that she was fine. At 9:00 pm, Ms. Benavides called her mother from Mr. Angulo’s phone to tell her that she was on her way home. She had lost her cell phone that day.
On the 911 call, Mr. McGee reported that a man was lying on the floor, unconscious, bleeding from his mouth. Mr. McGee said several times, “Oh my God” and shouted, “Help!” When an emergency worker asked if the man was the only injured person, Mr. McGee replied, “Yes, he is the only passenger.”
Mr. Angulo was flown to a hospital. He later told investigators that he could not remember the accident or why they stopped at the intersection.
A paramedic discovered a woman’s sandal under the Tahoe and ordered others to search the area for another victim. “Please tell me no,” Mr. McGee can be heard in the police video. “Please tell me no.”
Ms. Benavides’ body was found about 25 meters away.