Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Tesla driver was using Autopilot before fatal crash, police say

By Catalina Gaitán Seattle Times

A 56-year-old Snohomish man had set his Tesla Model S on Autopilot and was looking at his cellphone on Friday when he struck and killed a motorcyclist in front of him in Monroe, court records show.

A Washington State Patrol trooper arrested the Tesla driver at the crash site on Highway 522 at Fales Road shortly before 4 p.m. on suspicion of vehicular homicide, according to a probable cause affidavit.

The motorcyclist, Jeffrey Nissen, 28, of Stanwood, died at the scene, records show.

The Tesla driver told a state trooper he was driving home from having lunch in Bothell and was looking at his phone when he heard a bang and felt his car lurch forward, accelerate and hit the motorcyclist, according to the affidavit.

The man told the trooper his Tesla got stuck on top of the motorcyclist and couldn’t be moved in time to save him, the affidavit states.

The trooper cited the driver’s “inattention to driving, while on autopilot mode, and the distraction of the cell phone while moving forward,” and trusting “the machine to drive for him” as probable cause for a charge of vehicular homicide, according to the affidavit.

The man was booked into the Snohomish County Jail and was released Sunday after posting bond on his $100,000 bail, jail records show.

State Patrol spokesperson Chris Loftis said the agency is investigating the crash.

Autonomous driving is currently only legal for testing in Washington, and only three companies – NVIDIA Corporation, Waymo and Zoox – have certified with the state’s licensing department to do so, Loftis said.

“It is imperative that the traveling public remember the driver [or] operator is always responsible for the safe and legal operation of their vehicle in any locale,” Loftis said. “Bottom line – if you are behind the wheel, you are responsible.”

A June 2023 analysis of federal crash data by The Washington Post found that Tesla cars on Autopilot had been involved in 736 U.S. crashes since 2019, 17 of which were fatal.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ordered Tesla in December to recall four of its models with Autopilot, including the S, saying the function wasn’t “sufficient to prevent driver misuse” that could increase the risk of a crash. Tesla released a free “over-the-air” software update to all of its cars equipped with Autopilot to prevent driver misuse of the function, including by making it easier to turn off Autopilot and suspending the function if the driver repeatedly fails to drive responsibly while using it.

According to the company’s website, a driver must remain “fully attentive” and agree to keep their hands on the wheel “to take over any moment” before turning on Autopilot.