The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has opened an investigation into Tesla Model S vehicles following the first fatal crash involving a self-driving car.
Reuters reports that the crash occurred on May 7 in Williston, Florida when a 2015 Tesla Model S, which was operating on autopilot, collided with a tractor-trailer that was turning left across the highway on which the car was driving. The Tesla's owner, who died in the crash, was 40-year-old Joshua D. Brown of Canton, Ohio. Brown was a former Navy SEAL and the owner of a technology company called Nexu Innovations.
Brown's final tweet, a month before his death, was a retweet of a video he uploaded to YouTube of his Tesla on autopilot avoiding a collision with a truck. It's been watched 1.7 million times. Sadly, it was unable to do the same thing a month later.
A photo of his Tesla appeared prominently on his Facebook profile; his cover photo is of his black Tesla being charged in the woods:
The NHTSA is investigating the safety of auto-pilot after this crash, which is currently in 25,000 Tesla Model S's.
Tesla acknowledged the crash and the investigation on its blog, writing that the company informed NHTSA of the crash "immediately after it occurred," almost two months ago. Tesla offered a technical explanation of both why the crash occurred and why it was fatal:
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.
Tesla implies in its blog post that the crash was ultimately the driver's fault and that other drivers should be aware that the technology is still in beta.
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. When drivers activate Autopilot, the acknowledgment box explains, among other things, that Autopilot “is an assist feature that requires you to keep your hands on the steering wheel at all times," and that "you need to maintain control and responsibility for your vehicle” while using it. Additionally, every time that Autopilot is engaged, the car reminds the driver to “Always keep your hands on the wheel. Be prepared to take over at any time.” The system also makes frequent checks to ensure that the driver's hands remain on the wheel and provides visual and audible alerts if hands-on is not detected. It then gradually slows down the car until hands-on is detected again.
Tesla also argues that the safety of its vehicles compares favorable to the average amount of accidents that occur on U.S. roads.
"This is the first known fatality in just over 130 million miles where Autopilot was activated," Tesla wrote. "Among all vehicles in the US, there is a fatality every 94 million miles. Worldwide, there is a fatality approximately every 60 million miles."
Tesla also extended condolences to Brown's family, and wrote that he was "a friend to Tesla and the broader EV community, a person who spent his life focused on innovation and the promise of technology and who believed strongly in Tesla’s mission."
Ethan Chiel is a reporter for Fusion, writing mostly about the internet and technology. You can (and should) email him at firstname.lastname@example.org