Tesla car involved in fatal crash while in Autopilot mode, U.S. says

The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) today said it is opening a preliminary investigation into 25,000 Tesla Model S cars, following the death of a driver who was killed using the vehicle's Autopilot mode.

NHTSA says the crash happened in a 2015 Model S car, which was driving with the automated systems engaged. The agency "calls for an examination of the design and performance of any driving aids in use at the time of the crash." Such an enquiry must first happen before NHTSA can call for a recall, if the vehicles are determined to be unsafe.



NHTSA's statement says the man died in an autopilot mode crash on May 7 in Williston, Florida. Early reports say a tractor-trailer made a left turn in front of the Tesla at an intersection just before the collision.

In a blog post today, Tesla noted that this is the first known fatality in just over 130 million miles of total drive time in Telsa cars where Autopilot was activated.

"Neither Autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied," the Tesla post reads.

A Tesla Model S being charged. Reuters

A Tesla Model S being charged. Reuters

Among all vehicles in the US, there is a fatality every 94 million miles. Worldwide, there is a fatality approximately every 60 million miles. It is important to emphasize that the NHTSA action is simply a preliminary evaluation to determine whether the system worked according to expectations.

Following our standard practice, Tesla informed NHTSA about the incident immediately after it occurred. What we know is that the vehicle was on a divided highway with Autopilot engaged when a tractor trailer drove across the highway perpendicular to the Model S. Neither Autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied. The high ride height of the trailer combined with its positioning across the road and the extremely rare circumstances of the impact caused the Model S to pass under the trailer, with the bottom of the trailer impacting the windshield of the Model S. Had the Model S impacted the front or rear of the trailer, even at high speed, its advanced crash safety system would likely have prevented serious injury as it has in numerous other similar incidents.

It is important to note that Tesla disables Autopilot by default and requires explicit acknowledgement that the system is new technology and still in a public beta phase before it can be enabled.

The driver was a Navy veteran who owned a technology consulting business. Tesla's statement today described him as a man "who spent his life focused on innovation and the promise of technology and who believed strongly in Tesla's mission."

From The New York Times:

Mr. Brown posted videos of himself riding in autopilot mode. "The car's doing it all itself,'' he said in one, smiling as he took his hands from the steering wheel.

In another, he praised the system for saving his car from an accident.

[via Reuters]