Tesla driver killed in crash with Autopilot active, NHTSA to investigate

In a shocking incident, a man was killed in a Tesla car with its Autopilot active. Neither he nor the Autopilot could see a oncoming tractor trailer resulting in a fatal accident.

A Tesla Model S with the Autopilot system activated was involved in a fatal crash on May 7 in Williston, Florida, resulting in the death of the driver. This is believed to be the first death related to a vehicle with a semi-autonomous driving feature involved.

The company disclosed the crash in a blog post yesterday and says it has 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.

NHTSA will be carrying out an investigation to ensure that everything worked according to expectations.

A post on Tesla’s blog describes what happened. “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.”

NHTSA issued a 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.”

The victim was identified as Joshua Brown, 40, of Canton, Ohio. He was a Navy veteran who owned a technology consulting firm. In a news release, Tesla on Thursday described him as a man “who spent his life focused on innovation and the promise of technology and who believed strongly in Tesla’s mission.”

Mr. Brown had posted videos of himself riding in autopilot mode. “The car’s doing it all itself,’’ he said in one, smiling as he took his hands from the steering wheel. In another, he had praised the system for saving his car from an accident.

When Tesla is looking to expand its product lineup from expensive electric vehicles to more mainstream models, this death comes as a blow to the company at this time. On Thursday, the company refused to say whether the technology or the driver or either were at fault in the accident.

While there’s an on-going investigation, the accident is certain to raise some legit questions about self-driving vehicles and whether autonomous systems (and today’s drivers) are ready for prime-time.