In journalism, there is a principle to only write about something if it is relevant. Sometimes, a “no news” event becomes relevant, not about the reported fact but rather about how it should have been treated. That is precisely this case after the CHP (California Highway Patrol) said on May 13 that Autopilot was engaged in a fatal Tesla Model 3 crash near Fontana. On May 14, it rectified that, saying that it was yet to be confirmed.
If you are not familiar with this crash, it killed Steven Michael Hendrickson at about 2:30 AM on May 5 at the I-210 close to the Citrus Avenue offramp. Hendrickson hit an overturned truck and hurt the truck driver and a person who was trying to help him. The Tesla driver was 35, said he was the proud single dad of two kids, and posted at least two TikTok videos praising full self-driving in his car. NHTSA is investigating the crash.
It is not clear why the CHP rushed to say Autopilot was engaged then said a day later that it was still not sure about that. It claimed it did that due to the “high level of interest" involving the case and “to remind the public that driving is a complex task that requires a driver’s full attention.” Ironically, this is exactly why it should have handled the matter with more caution.
Considering how sensitive the situation is and how the public is eager to understand the precise circumstances that caused it, it should have waited for concrete evidence before making such a statement.
Autopilot and FSD are under severe scrutiny after another fatal crash in Texas that killed two people. No one was found in the driver’s seat. The first theory was that the car was running on Autopilot, FSD, or Smart Summon. Now, another possibility is that the driver could not open the doors and tried to escape going to the back seat. NHTSA and NTSB are investigating what happened.
The incident also shows how the rush to get the news out may hurt the credibility of media outlets. We have learned about CHP’s wrong move thanks to an Associated Press article claiming that the driver’s identity was not revealed. It was. What we need to know now is whether Hendrickson was on Autopilot or if he fell asleep at the wheel.