A Tesla Model S with the Autopilot system activated was involved in a fatal crash, the first known fatality in a Tesla where Autopilot was active. The company revealed the crash in a blog post posted today and says it informed the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) of the incident, which is now investigating.
The accident occurred on a divided highway in central Florida when a tractor trailer drove across the highway perpendicular to the Model S. Neither the driver — who Tesla notes is ultimately responsible for the vehicle’s actions, even with Autopilot on — nor the car noticed the big rig or the trailer "against a brightly lit sky" and brakes were not applied. In a tweet, Tesla CEO Elon Musk said that the vehicle's radar didn't help in this case because it "tunes out what looks like an overhead road sign to avoid false braking events."
Because of the high ride-height of the trailer, as well as its positioning across the road, the Model S passed under the trailer and the first impact was between the windshield and the trailer. Tesla writes that if the car had impacted the front or rear of the trailer, even at high speed, the car’s safety systems "would likely have prevented serious injury as it has in numerous other similar incidents."
"Autopilot is getting better all the time, but it is not perfect and still requires the driver to remain alert."
The accident occurred May 7th in Williston, Florida with 40-year-old Ohio resident Joshua Brown driving. The truck driver was not injured.
Tesla says Autopilot has been used for more than 130 million miles, noting that, on average, a fatality occurs every 94 million miles in the US and every 60 million miles worldwide. The NHTSA investigation, Tesla says, is a "preliminary evaluation" to determine if the Autopilot system was working properly, which can be a precursor to a safety action like a recall.
In the blog post, Tesla reiterates that customers are required to agree that the system is in a "public beta phase" before they can use it, and that the system was designed with the expectation that drivers keep their hands on the wheel and that the driver is required to "maintain control and responsibility for your vehicle." Safety-critical vehicle features rolled out in public betas are new territory for regulators, and rules haven't been set.
The first fatality in an Tesla in Autopilot mode
Some autonomous driving experts have criticized Tesla for introducing the Autopilot feature so early, with a Volvo engineer saying the system "gives you the impression that it's doing more than it is." In other words, the car handles most situations so smoothly that drivers are led to believe that the car can handle any situation it might encounter. That is not the case, and the driver must remain responsible for the actions of the vehicle, even with Autopilot active. Several automakers working on systems similar to Autopilot — GM with Super Cruise, for instance — have only tested the feature privately and have said they won't deploy until they're ready.
Volvo has said that it will take full legal liability for all its cars when they are operating in fully autonomous mode, and plans to launch a limited trial of its autonomous Drive Me technology next year.
NHTSA issued the following statement to The Verge:
NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation is opening a Preliminary Evaluation of the design and performance of automated driving systems in the Tesla Model S.
NHTSA recently learned of a fatal highway crash involving a 2015 Tesla Model S, which, according to the manufacturer, was operating with the vehicle’s ‘Autopilot’ automated driving systems activated. The incident, which occurred on May 7 in Williston, Florida, was reported to NHTSA by Tesla. NHTSA deployed its Special Crash Investigations Team to investigate the vehicle and crash scene, and is in communication with the Florida Highway Patrol. Preliminary reports indicate the vehicle crash occurred when a tractor-trailer made a left turn in front of the Tesla at an intersection on a non-controlled access highway. The driver of the Tesla died due to injuries sustained in the crash.
NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation will examine the design and performance of the automated driving systems in use at the time of the crash. During the Preliminary Evaluation, NHTSA will gather additional data regarding this incident and other information regarding the automated driving systems.
The opening of the 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.