US authorities open investigation into Tesla following fatal crash

Authorities in the US have opened an investigation into Tesla’s Autopilot mode, during a fatal crash that saw a Model S vehicle crash into a white lorry against a brightly lit sky.

According to a statement released by Tesla, titled “A Tragic Loss”, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is conducting a preliminary evaluation into whether the car’s autonomous system “worked according to expectations”.

The crash occurred on 7 May 2016, in Williston, Florida, and led to the death of 40-year-old Joshua Brown. Tesla claims that the Model S’s sensors failed to pick up the presence of “the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky,” and therefore did not apply the brakes when it drove across the car’s path.

The car impacted with the underside of the trailer as it attempted to drive beneath it.  A police report says the car then continued to travel after it passed under the truck’s trailer, crashing through two fences and into a pole.    

A YouTube video apparently uploaded by Joshua Brown shows a recording of a previous encounter, when the car autonomously swerved to avoid a boom lift truck on a highway.

YouTube video

“I actually wasn’t watching that direction and Tessy (the name of my car) was on duty with autopilot engaged,” writes Brown in the video description. “I became aware of the danger when Tessy alerted me with the ‘immediately take over’ warning chime and the car swerving to the right to avoid the side collision.”

While paying respects to Brown and his family, Tesla’s statement goes to some lengths to avoid full responsibility for the crash. It notes that “this is the first known fatality in just over 130 million miles where Autopilot was activated,” and that “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 goes on to note that Autopilot is disabled by default, and that drivers are told they must maintain control and responsibility of their vehicle when using it.

The crash comes at a time when attitudes towards autonomous vehicles have been loosening, and is sure to reignite an ongoing debate around the responsibilities of drivers and manufacturers when it comes to vehicle safety. NHTSA said that the opening of its Preliminary Evaluation “should not be construed as a finding that the Office of Defects Investigation believes there is either a presence or absence of a defect in the subject vehicles”.

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