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Luck Tesla’s design probably saved a cliff-diving family, experts say

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ALAMEDA, Calif. — A California doctor allegedly plunged his family hundreds of feet into a coastal cliff in what authorities described as an attempted murder, but their unlikely survival was likely due to luck and a well-built vehicle, said experts.

Dharmesh Patel, 41, is accused of pulling a Tesla Model Y onto ‘Devils Slide’, likely flipping the SUV multiple times while descending the approximately 250ft cliff 20 miles south of San Francisco on the morning of January 2 , says the California Highway Patrol.

Footage captured by a rescue team showed the battered SUV upright, perched precariously on a rocky ledge just above the Pacific Ocean.

Four people have been rescued after a Tesla plunged off a cliff in California on Monday.NBC Bay Area

Jingwen Yu, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, said their survival was “kind of a miracle, given the severity of the impact.”

“The driver probably underestimated the safety of a vehicle, which gave us ‘hope’ for the safety of the vehicle,” Yu said in an email.

Patel, a 41-year-old woman and two children aged 4 and 7 – both of whom were in car seats – were also in the SUV, California Highway Patrol spokesman Mark Andrews said.

Andrews declined to elaborate on their conditions on Thursday but said all remained hospitalized.

It’s unclear how fast Patel was traveling when his vehicle pulled off the scenic stretch of Highway 1 around 11:00 a.m. It’s also unclear what drive mode Patel was using before the SUV fell off the cliff, the California Highway Patrol said.

“However, this does not appear to be a contributing factor to this incident,” the agency said Tuesday.

Knocked down several times

In video from the scene, a fire official involved in the rescue effort, Cal Fire San Mateo Santa Cruz Battalion Chief Brian Pottenger, said the SUV rolled over “several” times on the way down. Yu said the SUV appeared to have hit the cliff as it tumbled towards the ocean.

“Rollover” incidents tend to be much deadlier than frontal or side collisions, Yu said. While footage showed a car that had sustained significant damage, Yu said its integrity appeared to have remained intact.

“Occupants still have survival space,” he said. “It’s amazing.”

Yu pointed to the SUV’s roof strength and seat belt design. He also said its low center of gravity – the car’s batteries are in its undercarriage – may have helped it land on its wheels instead of its roof.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit research and education organization, gave the Tesla Model Y the highest safety scores since the SUV was introduced in 2020, a spokesperson said.

But the organization’s head of research, David Zuby, has warned that no automaker is preparing for an event like Devils Slide.

“In my 35 years of vehicle safety work, I’ve never seen an automaker say, ‘Look at this crash test we’re doing for extra credit,’” he said. car you could buy today is only designed to protect the driver when they come down a cliff like that.”

Their survival, he said, was “mainly luck”.

Security improvements over the years

Still, Zuby said cars have generally become safer over the past three decades. They’re built with stronger materials, like high-strength steel and a better-designed “roll cage,” or the area that protects a car’s occupants.

These improvements mean people are less likely to die in shipwrecks than they were in the 1970s and 1980s, Zuby said.

“People are wearing seat belts more than 30 years ago,” he added. “It certainly or probably played a role in the survival of these peoples.”

Whether it was a seatbelt, luck or the well-constructed roof of the Model Y, Pottenger said that while rescuers were devising a recovery plan, through binoculars, they noticed someone was moving in the front seat of the SUV.

“It was very shocking,” he told NBC News NOW. “We weren’t expecting this. It really changed my mind, that this is not a recovery, this is an active rescue.”

Helicopters were dispatched and the family was hoisted out of the vehicle using rescue baskets, he said.

Authorities have not identified a motive in the alleged crime. Patel, who works at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in Los Angeles, will be incarcerated in San Mateo County Jail for attempted murder and child abuse after he was released from hospital, the California Highway Patrol said.

It is unclear if Patel has an attorney. In a statement, the hospital said it was “deeply saddened to learn of a traffic incident involving one of our doctors and his family. We are extremely grateful that there were no serious injuries.”

The hospital declined to comment further.

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