Driver of a Tesla killed in crash may have been on operating on Autopilot

Steven Michael Hendrickson, 35, may not have had his hands on the wheel

California highway authorities said the driver of a Tesla involved in a fatal crash may have been operating it on Autopilot, after it was revealed he’d previously shared videos of himself driving it with no hands on the wheel. 

Steven Michael Hendrickson, 35, was killed when his white Tesla Model 3 struck an overturned semi-truck at about 2.30am on May 5. 

Before his death, the married father of two posted social media videos of himself riding in the electric vehicle without his hands on the wheel or foot on its pedal.

The crash happened on the 210 Freeway near Fontana, California – about 50 miles east of Los Angeles.

The CHP announced Thursday that its preliminary investigation had determined that the Tesla’s partially automated driving system called Autopilot ‘was engaged’ prior to the crash.  

A spokesman added that no final conclusion had been reached on what exactly had caused the fatal crash – the 29th involving a Tesla to have been probed by federal agency the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

The Mack truck, which the Tesla collided with, had crashed and overturned just five minutes earlier, blocking two lanes of the highway, according to a highway patrol report.

It comes just weeks after another Tesla smashed into a tree and burst into flames in Texas, resulting in the deaths of the two men inside, neither of whom was said to have been in the driver’s seat at the time. 

Hendrickson was a member of the Southern California chapter of a Tesla club and posted numerous photos and video on social media of his white Tesla. 

One video on his Instagram account showed him riding in the driver’s seat without his hands on the wheel or foot on the pedal as the Tesla navigated freeway traffic.

The video included the comment: ‘Best carpool buddy possible even takes the boring traffic for me.’

He had previously shared shared videos of himself driving car without his hands on the wheel or foot on its pedal, investigators have said

Tesla driver, 35, killed in crash previously shared shared videos of himself driving car without his hands on the wheel or foot on its pedal, investigators have said 

Steven Michael Hendrickson, 35, was killed when his Tesla Model 3 struck an overturned semi about 2.30am

He posted numerous photos of his Tesla Model 3 to social media

Steven Michael Hendrickson, 35, was killed when his Tesla Model 3 struck an overturned semi about 2.30am. He posted numerous photos of his Tesla Model 3 to social media in 2020

He posted numerous photos and videos to social media that showed his hands off the wheel in 2020

He posted numerous photos and videos to social media that showed his hands off the wheel in 2020

Another video posted in 2020 shows the computer screen inside of his Tesla appearing to show that the Autopilot function was enabled

Another video posted in 2020 shows the computer screen inside of his Tesla appearing to show that the Autopilot function was enabled

A GoFundMe page set up to raise money for his funeral and memorial service says Hendrickson was survived by his wife and two children. A message seeking comment from his wife has not been returned.

‘Every time we spoke to him, he would light up talking about his kids and loved his Tesla,’ Tesla Club-SoCal posted on Instagram. 

‘He was truly an amazing human being and will be missed!

Another man was seriously injured when the electric vehicle hit him as he was helping the semi´s driver out of the wreck.

In a video he posted in 2020, Hendrickson films himself in his Tesla while heading to an event in Las Vegas while asking people what they are thankful for while telling people to ‘keep your heads up.’

‘I’m very grateful for a lot of blessings I have in my life, and the things that I have the ability to have and the ability to do,’ he says.

Steven Michael Hendrickson, 35, is pictured in a 2020 video inside of his Tesla Model 3

Steven Michael Hendrickson, 35, is pictured in a 2020 video inside of his Tesla Model 3

The agency said it was commenting on the Fontana crash because of the ‘high level of interest’ about Tesla crashes and because it was ‘an opportunity to remind the public that driving is a complex task that requires a driver´s full attention.’

At least three people have died in previous U.S. crashes involving Autopilot, which can keep a car centered in its lane and a safe distance behind vehicles in front of it. Tesla is allowing a limited number of owners to test its self-driving system, which warns drivers that they must still keep their hands on the car’s steering wheel. 

Tesla, which has disbanded its public relations department, did not respond Friday to an email seeking comment. The company says in owner´s manuals and on its website that both Autopilot and ‘Full Self-Driving’ are not fully autonomous and that drivers must pay attention and be ready to intervene at any time.

California’s DMV has accused Tesla boss Elon Musk of exaggerating when his cars might become fully-autonomous. They currently operate at Level 2 autonomy – meaning they can change lanes or round bends by themselves. No car manufacturer has come anywhere close to Level 5 – fully autonomous driving.  

The wreckage of the white Tesla Model 3 is seen in aerial footage

The wreckage of the white Tesla Model 3 is seen in aerial footage

The Tesla driver, a 35-year old man, died at the scene. The truck driver, 50, and a motorist, 30, who had stopped to help, both sustained minor injuries, according to the police report

The Tesla driver, a 35-year old man, died at the scene. The truck driver, 50, and a motorist, 30, who had stopped to help, both sustained minor injuries, according to the police report

After the crash, the California Highway Patrol closed all westbound lanes on the 210 Freeway (pictured) before later reopening one lane to slower traffic

After the crash, the California Highway Patrol closed all westbound lanes on the 210 Freeway (pictured) before later reopening one lane to slower traffic

Autopilot at times has had trouble dealing with stationary objects and traffic crossing in front of Teslas.

In two Florida crashes, from 2016 and 2019, cars with Autopilot in use drove beneath crossing tractor-trailers, killing the men driving the Teslas. In a 2018 crash in Mountain View, California, an Apple engineer driving on Autopilot was killed when his Tesla struck a highway barrier.

Tesla’s system, which uses cameras, radar and short-range sonar, also has trouble handling stopped emergency vehicles. Teslas have struck several firetrucks and police vehicles that were stopped on freeways with their flashing emergency lights on.

After the Florida and California fatal crashes, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that Tesla develop a stronger system to ensure drivers are paying attention, and that it limit use of Autopilot to highways where it can work effectively. Neither Tesla nor the safety agency took action.

Emergency personnel work a the scene where a Tesla electric SUV crashed into a barrier on U.S. Highway 101 in Mountain View, California in 2018

Emergency personnel work a the scene where a Tesla electric SUV crashed into a barrier on U.S. Highway 101 in Mountain View, California in 2018

Tesla CEO Elon Musk gestures as he arrives to visit the construction site of the future US electric car giant Tesla, in Gruenheide near Berlin in 2020

Tesla CEO Elon Musk gestures as he arrives to visit the construction site of the future US electric car giant Tesla, in Gruenheide near Berlin in 2020

In a Feb. 1 letter to the U.S. Department of Transportation, NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt urged the department to enact regulations governing driver-assist systems such as Autopilot, as well as testing of autonomous vehicles. 

NHTSA has relied mainly on voluntary guidelines for the vehicles, taking a hands-off approach so it won´t hinder development of new safety technology.

Sumwalt said that Tesla is using people who have bought the cars to test ‘Full Self-Driving’ software on public roads with limited oversight or reporting requirements.

‘Because NHTSA has put in place no requirements, manufacturers can operate and test vehicles virtually anywhere, even if the location exceeds the AV (autonomous vehicle) control system´s limitations,’ Sumwalt wrote.

He added: ‘Although Tesla includes a disclaimer that `currently enabled features require active driver supervision and do not make the vehicle autonomous,´ NHTSA´s hands-off approach to oversight of AV testing poses a potential risk to motorists and other road users.’

NHTSA, which has authority to regulate automated driving systems and seek recalls if necessary, seems to have developed a renewed interest in the systems since President Joe Biden took office.

Last month, a Tesla smashed into a tree and burst into flames (above) in the wealthy The Woodlands neighborhood, Houston, on April 17, resulting in the deaths of two men

Last month, a Tesla smashed into a tree and burst into flames (above) in the wealthy The Woodlands neighborhood, Houston, on April 17, resulting in the deaths of two men

Dr. William Varner, 59, (above) and Everette Talbot, 69, both died in the fatal crash when the Tesla Model S smashed into a tree and burst into flames.

Dr. William Varner, 59, and Everette Talbot (pictured), 69, both died in the fatal crash when the Tesla Model S smashed into a tree and burst into flames

Dr. William Varner, 59, and Everette Talbot, 69, both died in the fatal crash when the Tesla Model S smashed into a tree and burst into flames 

Last month, a Tesla smashed into a tree and burst into flames in Texas, resulting in the deaths of two men – the car’s owner Doctor William Varner, and his pal Everette Talbot.

Police had said it was apparent that there was no one in the driver’s seat at the time of the crash in the wealthy The Woodlands neighborhood of Houston, on April 17.

But Tesla had refuted police’s claims, saying a deformed steering wheel suggested that someone was likely in the driver’s seat.

Varner, 59, and Talbot, 69, both died in the fatal crash when the Tesla Model S – bought second-hand off eBay in January – smashed into a tree and burst into flames.

The car’s batteries burned for four hours afterwards.  

At the end of April, the Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office’s report revealed more details as to how the flames took hold.

It reiterated local police’s assertion that no one was in the driver’s seat while the report classifies the crash as accidental.

Investigator Chris Johnson stated that the fire was caused by the collision. The report did not note the car’s speed or whether air bags and seat belts were used.

Tesla had not commented. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board are both investigating.

The report stated: ‘There were signs of extensive mechanical damage caused by a front end collision, and the front end of the vehicle was in direct contact with the trunk of a large tree.

Police said it was apparent there was no one in the driver's seat but Tesla refuted police's claims, saying a deformed steering wheel suggested someone was likely in the driver's seat

Police said it was apparent there was no one in the driver’s seat but Tesla refuted police’s claims, saying a deformed steering wheel suggested someone was likely in the driver’s seat

Varner's Model S (pictured: remains of Tesla at crash scene) crashed into trees just a few hundred yards from his $2million home in the gated community of Carlton Woods Creekside

Varner’s Model S (pictured: remains of Tesla at crash scene) crashed into trees just a few hundred yards from his $2million home in the gated community of Carlton Woods Creekside 

It also detailed how the vehicle’s ‘hood, front doors, front body panels, forward support pillars, trunk and roof were completely destroyed’.

Talbot was seated ‘in a forward-leaning position, with both arms rolled forward’, according to the report, while Varner was ‘in a rear-leaning position, with both arms rolled back and in a pugilistic pose.’

It added: ‘Multiple fire patterns produced by both the movement and intensity of the fire indicate that the fire originated from the vehicle’s power distribution system and related components located at the front end of the vehicle.’

‘Any extensive damage to the battery, the power distribution systems, or the systems associated with battery cell temp regulation can result in electrical arcing and/or thermal runaway of the lithium-ion cells, which are both competent source of ignition.

‘The vehicle sustained a significant front end collision which damaged one, or many of these systems, leading to the development of fire within with the vehicle.

Varner’s Model S crashed into trees just a few hundred yards from his $2million home in the gated community of Carlton Woods Creekside.

Talbot is said to have been found in the front passenger seat and the car’s owner, Varner, in the back seat. Police said it was apparent that there was no one in the driver’s seat at the time of the crash.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk said in the crash’s immediate aftermath data downloaded by Tesla indicate the vehicle was not operating on Autopilot, its semi-autonomous driving system.

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