The miraculous survival of a California doctor and his family after he drove them in a Tesla SUV off a 250-foot cliff is likely due to a combination of sheer luck and a solidly-built cliff, experts said.
Jingwen Yu, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, said it was “kind of a miracle” that Dr. Dharmesh Patel and his family are alive after the terrifying plunge off the Pacific Coast Highway on Monday.
“The driver probably underestimated how safe a vehicle could be, which provided us ‘hope’ for vehicle safety,” Yu told NBC News.
It remains unclear what driving mode the Tesla was in — including whether it had its Autopilot function on — but officials believe that Patel, 41, intentionally drove his wife Neha and their two children – a 7-year-old girl and 4-year-old boy – over the cliff’s edge.
Yu pointed out that despite the violent impact, the vehicle’s integrity remained surprisingly intact — a feat that may be explained by the vehicle’s strong roof.
“The occupants still have a survival space. That’s remarkable,” he told NBC News,
Yu also cited the batteries’ role in protecting the family from further harm because they contributed to the vehicle’s low center of gravity and helped keep the car upright.
Jose Granda, a professor of mechanical engineering at California State University in Sacramento, said that contrary to what fire officials have said, he doesn’t believe the SUV flipped over before coming to rest on its wheels.
Computer simulations show it couldn’t have, he said, adding that he also doesn’t believe the car smashed into the cliff on its way down.
If the Tesla had rolled over as described, the roof would have caved in and all of the occupants would have been killed, Granda said.
He said the SUV likely reached speeds topping 80 mph on its way down before its impact was likely softened a bit by the pebblelike rocks and sand by the water.
The expert likened the landing area to a ball pit at Chuck E. Cheese.
“You have the reason why these people are alive,” he said, adding that the electric car’s batteries most likely kept the vehicle from tilting forward.
David Zuby, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s chief research officer, told NBC News that no manufacturer prepares for an event like the plunge off the cliff.
“In my 35 years of working on vehicle safety, I’ve never had an automaker say, ‘Look at this crash test we’re doing for extra credit,’” Zuby said.
“No car you could go buy today is designed to protect the driver when they drive off a cliff like that,” he said, adding that the family’s survival was “mostly luck.”
On Thursday, Highway Patrol spokesman Mark Andrew told NBC News that the family members all remained hospitalized, but declined to discuss their conditions.
Patel will be booked on charges of attempted murder and child abuse once he is released from Stanford Hospital, authorities have said.
A possible motive has not been established and the incident remains under investigation.
Providence Holy Cross Medical Center said in a statement that it was “deeply saddened to learn of a traffic incident involving one of our physicians and his family.
“We are extremely grateful there were no serious injuries. We will not respond further, as this incident is under investigation,” it added.