Tesla Motors acknowledged today that a driver of one of its Model S cars
operating in Autopilot mode died when the semi-autonomous system failed to
detect a tractor-trailer turning in front of the luxury electric car.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has begun a preliminary
investigation of the fatal accident that occurred May 7 in Williston, Fla.
The case illustrates the experimental nature of autonomous vehicle
technology that has attracted billions of dollars of investment from the
auto and technology industries.
"This is the first known fatality in just over 130 million miles where
Autopilot was activated," states a post on Tesla's corporate website.
"Among all vehicles in the U.S., 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
The post continues in substantial detail to describe the incident.
"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."
In a statement, NHTSA said the beginning of a preliminary investigation
"should not be construed as a finding that" the agency "believes there is
either a presence or absence of a defect in the subject vehicles."
Tesla's Autopilot enables the vehicle to drive itself under most highway
circumstances, but there are situations where drivers must be prepared to
reclaim control. It is not clear whether the driver was alerted in this
General Motors is working on a system called Super Cruise that it
previously said would be introduced next year to give the Cadillac CT6
"hands-free" driving, but the driver must remain engaged.
Earlier this month there was an incident in Irvine, Calif., where the
owner of a brand new Tesla Model X, also equipped with Autopilot,
accelerated from a parking space and crashed into a commercial building.
The owner and Tesla disputed whether Autopilot specifically caused the
The message on Tesla's website reflects legal advice about the limits of
"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."
Some say the accident shows Tesla's novel self-driving feature isn't ready
for prime time.
"Tesla might want to consider a voluntary recall or stop sale on its
vehicles equipped with the Autopilot feature," says Michelle Krebs, senior
analyst at AutoTrader, in a statement. "Self-driving vehicles hold much
promise for improving road safety, but more work is needed with the
technology, regulations and consumer confidence, which could be shaken by
accidents like this.?
Contact Greg Gardner: (313) 222-8762 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him
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