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The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration(NHTSA) has opened an investigation into Tesla Motors 2015 Model S cars after a driver died in a crash with Autopilot engaged. The crash happened on May 7 in Williston, Florida. According to preliminary investigation by the NHTSA, the crash occurred when a tractor-trailer made a left turn in front of the Model S car at an intersection. The agency has stated that the incident, “calls for an examination of the design and performance of any driving aids in use at the time of the crash.” This investigation will be a necessary step for the agency to determine if the vehicles should be recalled for safety reasons.

In a blog post on the incident, Tesla has stated this is the first known fatality in a Tesla vehicle with Autopilot engaged. Tesla also states that the NHTSA investigation is just a preliminary action to determine if the system was working as intended. The post also contains an account of the crash. It states:

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 also states that the Autopilot feature is imperfect and still in beta testing. Due to its imperfect nature, every time the Autopilot is engaged, drivers are instructed to keep their hands on the wheel and remain ready to take control of the vehicle. It states the Autopilot logic is continually improving as more miles are accumulated, but it still requires the driver to remain alert. Tesla concluded that “when used in conjunction with driver oversight, the data is unequivocal that Autopilot reduces driver workload and results in a statistically significant improvement in safety when compared to purely manual driving.”

Is this evidence that Tesla’s Autopilot mode is unsafe, or just an unfortunate accident? Leave your comments below.

Max Michael

Senior Writer

I’m a technology reporter located near the Innovation District of Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario.