Deadly Tesla crash was just pedal confusion, despite social media rumors

A deadly Tesla crash in China last November, which at the time was subject to swirling social media rumors that blamed it on Autopilot or brake failure or too-powerful electric motors, turns out to have just been another example of pedal confusion.

But now, data from the car’s Event Data Recorder has been posted to the internet by Xiao Te, a Tesla owner in China. And the data shows that in the seconds before the crash, the accelerator pedal was held at 100%, with no brakes applied. Further, the steering wheel did show inputs during that time frame, Autopilot was not active, and the car’s stability control system was engaged.

While the police investigation is not yet finished, the driver, who survived the crash and was wearing his seatbelt at the time, was not driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

The video of the crash received quite a lot of play because of how dramatic it was. In about 30 seconds, a Model Y traveled 2.6 kilometers at up to 164km/h (101mph), weaving through traffic, sideswiping other vehicles until it crashed into a storefront. The whole thing was tracked by Chinese CCTV cameras and stitched together (warning: graphic video).

The driver survived, though at least one bystander was left dead (most sources we’ve seen say two, but some say one). After the crash, the driver was interviewed stating that he had never touched the accelerator, and that he was pressing the brake the whole time.

This led to social media rumors suggesting brake failure, a topic that has made the rounds multiple times on Chinese social media, including when a protester showed up at Tesla’s booth at the Shanghai Auto Show.

Other theories made their way around social media as well. Some thought that it could have been Autopilot gone rogue during an attempt to autopark the car, and some incorrectly said that even if the brakes are functioning, a Tesla’s motor is too powerful and can overcome the brakes and therefore lead to a dangerous event like this (all cars are designed for brakes to be able to overcome the accelerator).

But the video showed that the brake lights never turned on, and the vehicle was not behaving in a manner consistent with Autopilot usage either.

So, at the time, we predicted that this was just another example of pedal confusion, which it turns out to have been. Pedal confusion is where a driver presses the accelerator thinking it’s the brake and then, while panicking, continues to press the accelerator harder and harder, only contributing to the problem.

Accusations of brake failure are not just limited to China – Tesla has also received many such complaints in the US, which at one point it responded to in a blog post broadly claiming, “there is no ‘unintended acceleration’ in Tesla vehicles.”

These complaints were examined by the NHTSA, which found that incidents of sudden unintended acceleration in Teslas were a result of driver error, and not due to any design flaw in the vehicle. The NHTSA reminds drivers that there are 16,000 preventable crashes per year in the US due to pedal error and cautions drivers to be aware of this problem, regardless of what make and model of car they drive.

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