By Mike Kaszuba
One day after a Tesla automobile crashed in rural Minnesota last summer, Tesla’s director of field performance engineering contacted the Kandiyohi County Sheriff’s office about the accident. In an e-mail, he wrote that federal regulators were asking the car company about the crash.
Kandiyohi County officials had sent out a press release on July 16 – the day following the crash — saying that the car’s driver had blamed the accident on Tesla’s unique autopilot system, which offers limited self-driving features. According to the press release, the driver stated that when he engaged the auto pilot system, “the vehicle suddenly accelerated causing the car to leave the roadway and overturn.” Less than twenty four hours later, the driver revised his statement in subsequent comments to law enforcement and the Minneapolis Star Tribune newspaper.
Sheriff’s department records obtained by Saint Paul-based non-profit Public Record Media (PRM) recount many details that had previously been reported about the crash. The records include the driver’s claim that his initial account had been misunderstood, and his statement that the car was not to blame for the accident. The records also contained subsequent praise from the driver regarding Tesla’s safety features.
However, the documents also raise several questions – including why the driver reportedly accelerated the car as he headed into what he knew would be a sharp curve. The driver – who told sheriff’s deputies that he traveled the road “frequently” and was aware of the curve – nonetheless described his surprise as he lost control of the car.
The accident left one other key question unanswered: Seven months after the crash, a Tesla spokesperson declined to say whether the company had ever examined the car to determine whether the auto pilot was at issue in the crash.
The auto pilot feature on the car – built by a company led by world-renowned innovator Elon Musk – has drawn the attention of the federal National Transportation Safety Board [NTSB] on more than one occasion.
In January, NTSB investigators were dispatched to investigate a Tesla that had crashed into a fire truck in California while the car was reportedly in auto pilot mode. In May of 2016, a driver was killed when his Tesla struck a large truck in Florida, and federal investigators concluded last fall that the accident was caused in part by the driver’s “over-reliance on vehicle automation” and a “lack of understanding of the system limitations.”
Tesla crashes near Willmar
At first, the July 2017 crash near Willmar, Minnesota triggered extensive media coverage. ABC-TV was among the national media outlets that inquired about the crash after the initial sheriff’s office press release. “When deputies arrived at the scene they found a 2016 Tesla on its top in a marsh,” the press release stated.
Documents show that the accident also stirred Tesla into action. Two days after the crash, Matt Schwall – Tesla’s director of field performance engineering – told Kandiyohi County officials that the accident was “creating significant confusion.” Via e-mail, he noted that “federal regulators just reached out to me to ask about the customer’s claims.”
Early that same morning, Bloomberg News was also reporting that Tesla’s stock price had dropped following the news of the accident, as well as a series of unrelated comments Musk had made about the company’s financial position.
By that time, the driver of the car – David Clark of Eden Prairie – had already been back in touch with the sheriff’s office. Late on the night of July 16, he told a sheriff’s deputy that he needed to clarify what happened – a move that would lead the sheriff’s office to announce that the driver had altered his initial story. Tesla’s Musk later took to Twitter to note that Clark had recast his story.
“I’m guessing [Clark’s] story changed once he had a few attorneys from Tesla contact him regarding his claim to the accident,” Deputy Quinton Pomplun wrote in an e-mail two days after the crash. According to the incident report, Pomplun had been among the initial responders to the scene. In his report, Pomplun wrote that Clark claimed that he engaged the car’s auto pilot just before the vehicle drove off the road. The report added that a contributing factor was that Clark had been distracted due to “switching between autopilot and driving.”
A spokesperson for Tesla told PRM that the driver contacted the sheriff’s office after the accident on his own accord – and without prodding from the car company — to clarify his story about what happened. Only after that, the spokesperson added, did Clark forward the information to Tesla.
A Kandiyohi County sheriff’s office spokesman told PRM that the office, including Pomplun, would not comment on the case beyond what was contained in the documents released to PRM.
Clark did not respond to attempts by PRM to have him comment further on the accident.
Sheriff’s office changes press release
Records show that even before Clark altered his story about the crash, the sheriff’s office had already made changes to its press release.
An initial press release, written on the day of the accident, matter-of-factly stated that the crash occurred “when the car’s auto pilot feature suddenly accelerated causing the car to leave the roadway and overturn.”
But a revised press release was issued by the sheriff’s office the next day, and contained a significant change: In bold letters, the updated press release stated that it was Clark who was claiming that the auto pilot feature had caused the car to suddenly accelerate. It said nothing of whether the sheriff’s office was backing up the claim.
Tesla’s Schwall contacted the sheriff’s office on the same day that the press release had been revised – July 16 – and thanked deputies for their “quick attention.” In an e-mail two days after the accident – July 17 – he thanked deputies for “getting the press release updated.” However, the documents do not conclusively show whether it was Schwall who asked the sheriff’s office to revise the press release.
Following the accident, Schwall had also e-mailed a copy of Tesla’s official response to the accident to the sheriff’s office. “So that you are aware, below is Tesla’s public statement regarding the crash,” he wrote.
Tesla’s statement noted that the automaker had not yet established whether the car’s auto pilot was engaged, and had “no reason to believe that Autopilot, which has been found by [the National Highway and Transportation Safety Administration] to reduce accident rates by 40%, worked other than as designed.”
“Every time a driver engages 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,” the statement added.
Tesla, driver correspond with sheriff’s office
Records show that on the day after the crash, the car’s driver and Tesla’s Schwall were busy sending e-mails.
Late on the night of July 16, Clark sent Pomplun an e-mail in which he told the deputy that he was “pretty shook up” immediately following the accident and wanted to clarify what happened. “I did not intend to put the blame [on] Tesla or the auto pilot system as I am aware that I need to be in control of the vehicle regardless if the auto pilot system is engaged or not.
“I have had a chance to discuss with passengers and try to replay the sequence of events leading up to the accident,” Clark continued. “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 like we hit loose gravel,” the driver added.
Clark then praised the car. “I am truly thankful for the safety features that Tesla had put into this car that saved all 5 of us from serious injury,” he wrote.
Pomplun responded just before 4 a.m. the next morning – July 17. “I understand the misunderstanding about our conversation the day of the accident,” the deputy wrote.
“With the information we talked about and how you explained [it] to me, I was in the understanding that the vehicle was in autopilot based on how you explained it. Therefore, that’s how it was reported,” wrote Pomplun. “Thanks for getting back to me and I will update my reports.”
Pomplun then sent an e-mail early that same morning to others at the Kandiyohi County sheriff’s office. “Hey fellas, the following email is from the driver of the Tesla from the crash Saturday night. In short, [he’s] taking full responsibility now,” Pomplun wrote. Pomplun then speculated to his colleagues that Tesla’s lawyers had been in contact with Clark.
Just before noon on that same day – July 17 – Clark sent e-mails to Tesla and to a newspaper reporter. “I sent an email into email@example.com to try to clear up reporting that has been done on my accident,” Clark wrote.
Fourteen minutes later, Tesla’s Schwall was in touch with Kandiyohi County’s sheriff’s deputies. “I understand from the attached email that there was a misunderstanding between the driver and deputy [Pomplun], and that the driver ‘did not intend to put the blame on Tesla or the auto pilot system.’ I am hoping that you can provide a second update to the press release to reflect that,” Schwall wrote in an e-mail message.
Later that same day, a sheriff’s office employee sent Greg Stehn – chief deputy of the office – a copy of an Associated Press story that chronicled how Clark had now altered his story. The e-mail to Stehn contained just one word: “Interesting.”
Incident reports note changes in driver’s story
Pomplun’s incident report noted that Clark acknowledged that he had consumed an alcoholic drink, but had passed a field sobriety test. In describing what happened, the report stated that “while driving under the speed limit eastbound on 172 Ave NE, he put the car in auto pilot which makes the car drive itself.
“The vehicle accelerated rapidly without David touching anything or doing anything and the car left the ‘y’ intersection eastbound across 141st St. NE. The vehicle entered the east side ditch and rolled over on its roof ending up in a swamp,” the report noted.
The day after the crash, Clark had phoned Pomplun and sent a follow-up e-mail. By the next morning, Pomplun noted in a supplement to his report that Clark was now “taking full responsibility for the accident and that the vehicle did not malfunction; it was his fault.”
According to Kandiyohi County officials, Clark was charged with careless driving. He received a stay of adjudication on November 8 of last year, received a $170 fine, and was put on probation for six months.
Other crashes, litigation
The Kandiyohi County crash came two months after Tesla owners filed a class action lawsuit against the car company in California, claiming that the auto pilot feature was “essentially unusable and demonstrably dangerous.” Tesla has denied the claims, and in a statement to Business Insider characterized the lawsuit as a “disingenuous attempt to secure attorney’s fees posing as a legitimate legal action.”
The crash in Minnesota also occurred two months before the NTSB issued a report regarding a fatal 2016 crash involving a Tesla in Florida.
The NTSB’s investigation of a specific traffic accident is rare, an agency spokesman told PRM. The spokesman said that of the approximately 6 million vehicle crashes that occur in the U.S. every year, the agency “typically investigates 20-25 of them.” He added: “We have looked into several crashes involving vehicles with autonomous driving systems but we are simply not resourced to look at every one that occurs.”
However, the NTSB was interested in the Tesla crash in Florida. In a September 2017 report, the agency noted that the Florida crash likely resulted from a truck driver’s failure to yield the right-of-way to the Tesla, combined with the “car driver’s inattention due to over-reliance on vehicle automation” and “a lack of understanding of the system limitations.”
NTSB Chair Robert Sumwalt III added that “system safeguards, that should have prevented the Tesla’s driver from using the car’s automation system on certain roadways, were lacking and the combined effects of human error and the lack of sufficient system safeguards resulted in a fatal collision that should not have happened.”
The NTSB recommended, among other things, that automakers “incorporate system safeguards to limit the use of automated control systems to conditions for which they are designed and for there to be a method to verify those safeguards.” The agency added that manufacturers should develop applications “to more effectively sense a driver’s level of engagement and alert when engagement is lacking.” The NTSB also urged automakers to report incidents and crashes involving automated vehicle control systems.
The business and technology website, Electrek, reported in February 2018 that Tesla is testing a more advanced auto pilot system.