George Brian McGee, a finance executive in Florida, was driving home in a Tesla Model S operating on Autopilot, a system that can steer, brake and accelerate a car on its own, when he dropped his phone during a call and bent down to look for it.
Neither he nor Autopilot noticed that the road was ending and the Model S drove past a stop sign and a flashing red light. The car smashed into a parked Chevrolet Tahoe, killing a 22-year-old college student, Naibel Benavides.
One of a growing number of fatal accidents involving Tesla cars operating on Autopilot, Mr. McGee’s case is unusual because he survived and told investigators what had happened: He got distracted and put his trust in a system that did not see and brake for a parked car in front of it. Tesla drivers using Autopilot in other fatal accidents have often been killed, leaving investigators to piece together the details from data stored and videos recorded by the cars.
“I was driving and dropped my phone,” Mr. McGee told an officer who responded to the accident, according to a recording from a police body camera. “I looked down, and I ran the stop sign and hit the guy’s car.”
Distracted driving can be deadly in any car. But safety experts say Autopilot may encourage distraction by lulling people into thinking that their cars are more capable than they are. And the system does not include safeguards to make sure drivers are paying attention to the road and can retake control if something goes wrong.
Mr. McGee, who declined to comment through his lawyer, told investigators that he was on the phone with American Airlines making reservations to fly out for a funeral. He called the airline at 9:05 p.m. on April 25, 2019. The call lasted a little more than five minutes and ended two seconds after his Model S crashed into the Tahoe, according to a Florida Highway Patrol investigation. Florida law makes it illegal to text while driving, but the state does not prohibit drivers from talking on a hand-held cellphone except in school or work zones.
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Tesla’s critics contend 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, G.M., Ford Motor and other automakers restrict their systems to divided highways where there are no stop signs, traffic lights or pedestrians.
Tesla owners’ manuals warn customers not to use Autopilot on city streets. “Failure to follow these instructions could cause damage, serious injury or death,” the manual for 2019 models says.