FILE - In this March 23, 2018 file photo provided by KTVU, emergency personnel work a the scene where a Tesla electric SUV crashed into a barrier on U.S. Highway 101 in Mountain View, Calif. Tesla says, Saturday, March 31, the vehicle in a fatal crash last week in California was operating on Autopilot, the latest accident to involve self-driving technology. The automaker says the driver, who was killed in the accident, did not have his hands on the steering wheel for six seconds before the crash. Tesla says its Autopilot feature, which can keep speed, change lanes and self-park, requires drivers to keep their eyes on the road and hands on the wheel to take control of the vehicle to avoid accidents. (KTVU via AP)
INTERNATIONAL - As controversy continued to swirl around the death of a Model X driver last month, the head of Alphabet’s self-driving car unit is drawing distinctions between his company’s technology and Tesla’s Autopilot.

Wei Huang, 38, died last month when his sport utility vehicle (SUV) using the driver-assistance system Autopilot collided with a highway barrier in Mountain View, California, and caught fire.

Computer logs recovered from the vehicle showed he did not have his hands on the steering wheel for six seconds before the crash, according to a Tesla blog post.

Autopilot is not comparable to the fully self-driving technology Waymo has been developing for a decade, said John Krafcik, the chief executive of the former Google driverless car unit.

Elon Musk, co-founder and chief executive of Tesla Inc.


Tesla’s system requires the human driver to remain alert and regularly put a hand on the wheel, while Waymo has been developing technology that requires no human input. Waymo’s tech is already in Chrysler minivans and on the road in pilot testing, with a paid driverless-taxi service coming later this year.

“Tesla has driver-assist technology and that’s very different from our approach,” Krafcik said last week, before Tesla revealed that Autopilot was engaged during the Model X crash.

“If there’s an accident in a Tesla, the human in the driver’s seat is ultimately responsible for paying attention. We don’t know what happened here, but there was no self-driving.”

A Tesla spokesperson did not immediately comment.

Previous concerns

The National Transportation Safety Board is looking into all aspects of the Model X crash, including reports that the driver had previously raised concerns about Autopilot.

Waymo announced a deal last week to install its self-driving system in 20000 Jaguar I-Pace electric SUVs that will be deployed as ride-hailing taxis in 2020. Krafcik is actively seeking other partnerships with carmakers, including two where he worked as a top engineer and executive: Ford and Hyundai.

He said he was closest to reaching another alliance with Honda to compete in the $164 billion (R1.93trillion) delivery and logistics market.

Autonomous technology aimed at saving lives has come under greater scrutiny following the Tesla crash and the death of a woman who was struck and killed by a self-driving Uber SUV in Tempe, Arizona, last month.

FILE- In this March 31, 2016, file photo, Tesla Motors unveils the new lower-priced Model 3 sedan at the Tesla Motors design studio in Hawthorne, Calif. Electric car maker Tesla Inc. increased production of its Model 3 mass-market car in the first quarter but still fell far short of the numbers it promised last summer. (AP Photo/Justin Pritchard, File)


The state’s governor banned Uber from operating autonomous cars there indefinitely. Companies including Toyota also have suspended self-driving tests on public roads.

Waymo, which has logged millions of miles in on-road tests, has not backed off its ambitious plans to deploy its technology commercially by the end of the year.

The company has made the case for years to media and legislators that its full-autonomy-or-else approach is safer than leaving the driver in the loop like Tesla, which has far more cars on the road collecting data.

Chief executive Elon Musk has updated Autopilot regularly via software updates and has said Tesla’s electric cars are being built with the hardware necessary for full self-driving capability eventually.

Krafcik said earlier that Waymo’s technology likely would have detected the pedestrian killed in Tempe by Uber’s SUV and avoided the crash, if faced with a similar situation.

“We have a lot of confidence that our technology would be robust and would be able to handle situations like that one,” Krafcik told the crowd at the National Automobile Dealers Association convention on March 24, six days after the Uber crash.

- BLOOMBERG