NHTSA Investigating Tesla Model S Following Fatal 'Autopilot' Crash

Steph Willems
by Steph Willems

A recent fatal crash of a 2015 Tesla Model S operating in “Autopilot” mode prompted the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to open a preliminary investigation into the model, Reuters is reporting.

Because the crash occurred when the vehicle was under the control of an autonomous driving system, the NHTSA said it is planning “an examination of the design and performance of any driving aids in use at the time of the crash.”

A preliminary investigation is the first step the agency can take if it believes a vehicle is unsafe and might need to be recalled. The probe involves a total of 25,000 Tesla Model S vehicles.

Tesla responded to the news on its website with a post titled “A Tragic Loss”:

This is the first known fatality in just over 130 million miles where Autopilot was activated. 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.

Tesla went on to explain that drivers are presented with a message explaining how to use Autopilot safety when they engage the feature:

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.

CNN is reporting that the crash happened May 7 in Williston, Florida. Tesla’s stock sank in after-hours trading when news of the investigation broke.

Steph Willems
Steph Willems

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  • Driver8 Driver8 on Jul 01, 2016

    (insert joke referencing autopilot from the movie 'Airplane')

  • Maserchist Maserchist on Jul 06, 2016

    1st, the gentleman was trusting/using Autopilot. 2nd, a serious lack of situational awareness is obvious in hindsight. 3rd, maybe a "Stomp of Mortal Peril" (TY Kenmore) could have saved a life, assuming that ABS was NOT active & a FULL-ON 4 wheel skid stop on dry pavement WAS initiated.

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