Tesla points finger at missing highway barrier on U.S. Highway 101 for severity of fatal crash

Google Street View of U.S. Highway 101 (left)/ Dashcam photo of witness of same road on March 22, 2018, one day before a fatal crash. Photo: Tesla blog.

Tesla simultaneously extended its "deepest sympathies"  for a fatal, fiery crash and blamed the severity of it on the fact that a highway barrier on U.S. 101 in Silicon valley had either been removed or crushed without being replaced.

Tesla released two images of the highway in Mountain View with the barrier in place, and then a dashcam still image from a witness of what appears to be the same stretch of road on March 22, the day before the crash with a section of the metal barrier missing. 

"We have never seen this level of damage to a Model X in any other crash," the company wrote on the Tesla blog. Caltrans was not immediately available for comment Wednesday morning to respond.

Still, Tesla said it is cooperating, and even proactively contacted authorities, about the March 23 accident that killed  38-year-old Wei Huang from San Mateo. "We would like to extend our deepest sympathies to the family and friends of our customer," Tesla wrote. "Safety is at the core of everything we do and every decision we make, so the loss of a life in an accident involving a Tesla vehicle is difficult for all of us."

The National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Keith Holloway said investigators will be looking into whether the Tesla Model X was operating on its Autopilot program at the time of the crash. Tesla Motors has not said if Autopilot was working at the time of the crash. 

In its blog, released Tuesday night, Tesla said there's a lot the company doesn't know because of the "extensive damage" caused by the collision, the Model X's computer logs have not been retrieved. "We are currently working closely with the authorities to recover the logs from the computer inside the vehicle. Once that happens and the logs have been reviewed, we hope to have a better understanding of what happened," the blog states.

Autopilot is designed to keep a vehicle centered in its lane at a set distance from cars in front of it and also can change lanes and brake automatically.

Photographs taken of the SUV show the front of the vehicle was obliterated. Its hood was ripped off and its front wheels were strewn on the freeway.

 The car was traveling southbound at "freeway speed" when it hit a freeway barrier, causing a collision with two other cars whose drivers were not reported injured, California Highway Patrol Art Montiel said.

"For unknown reasons the Tesla caught fire," Montiel said.

In terms of the fire that broke out after the crash, Tesla wrote its battery packs are designed to help fires spread slowly in case a fire breaks out, which appeared to be the case in this instance.  Gas-powered cars in the United States ares five times more likely to experience a fire than a Tesla vehicle, according to Tesla.

In January, the NTSB and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration dispatched teams to Culver City, near Los Angeles, to investigate the crash of a Model S electric car that may have been operating under the Autopilot system. That crash remains under investigation.

Tesla also added that its company data shows Tesla owners have driven this same stretch of highway with Autopilot engaged roughly 85,000 times since Autopilot was first rolled out in 2015 and roughly 20,000 times since just the beginning of the year. "And there has never been an accident that we know of," according to the Tesla blog. "There are over 200 successful Autopilot trips per day on this exact stretch of road."

The investigations come as Congress and federal agencies grapple with how to regulate autonomous vehicles and those with systems that are partially self-driving.

Tesla has taken steps to prevent drivers from using Autopilot improperly, including measuring the amount of torque applied to the steering wheel and sending visual and audio warnings.

If the warnings are ignored, drivers would be prevented from using Autopilot, the company said.

Tesla's stock closed down about 8 percent on Wall Street on Tuesday. 

KTVU's Allie Rasmus and the Associated Press contributed to this report.