A fatal crash involving a Tesla Model S running in Autopilot mode, believed to be the first such incident, is being investigated by US safety authorities.
The crash occurred in May on a Florida highway when a lorry pulled out in front of the Tesla. Neither the car’s occupant, 45-year old Joshua Brown, or its sensors saw the lorry. The car passed under the trailer, which struck high up the windscreen. The car came to rest several hundred yards down the road after striking a utility pole. Brown died from his injuries at the scene.
A statement released by Tesla described the circumstances of the crash: “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 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.”
The statement defended the Autopilot system’s safety record, noting that 130 million miles had been driven in Autopilot mode without a fatality, more than double the normal rate worldwide.
It also defended the safety of the Model S generally: “Had the Model S impacted the front or rear of the trailer, even at high speed, its advanced safety system would likely have prevented serious injury as it has in numerous other similar incidents.”
Both US and European crash testing organisations gave the Model S some of the highest marks for crash protection ever awarded.
Brown, a former Navy Seal and tech entrepreneur, was a noted fan of Tesla and the Autopilot system, posting 20 demonstration videos on Youtube. Only a month before he died, he posted a video of a near-miss with another truck in which he credited the Autopilot system with saving his life.
Before engaging Autopilot, drivers are required to acknowledge they recognise that it 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.” The driver can take over from Autopilot at any time, and the system sounds an alarm when it thinks the driver should.
The National Highway Transport Safety Administration was informed of the crash by Tesla and sent to a team of investigators to the scene. It has yet to present its findings.