Tesla Model S Goes Cross Country On Autopilot - Image Credit: Alex Roy

Tesla Model S Goes Cross Country On Autopilot - Image Credit: Alex Roy

A fatal accident involving a Tesla Model S while in Autopilot mode occurred on May 7th in Williston, Florida.

Earlier Tesla Model S Meets Trailer Incident During Summon - (via KSL)

Earlier Tesla Model S Meets Trailer Incident During Summon - (via KSL)

The circumstances of which have cause the NHTSA - U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to announce today that it was opening a preliminary investigation into the ~25,000 Tesla Model S sedans equipped with the function, stating the incident "calls for an examination of the design and performance of any driving aids in use at the time of the crash."

The investigation could lead to a recall, or retraction of the Autopilot system entirely if the agency finds the vehicles are unsafe while operating in Autopilot mode.

NHTSA reports the particulars of the accident as being the collision occurred when a tractor-trailer made a left turn in front of a Tesla at an intersection.

Update:  ABC News has filed a report, with some live videos from just after the accident, and a witness account of the incident.

Update 2:  The Associated Press reports that the driver of the truck in the accident states that the Model S driver (Joshua Brown - 40, Navy Seal) may have been watching a movie at the time of the accident (although this information was not listed in the police report), stating:

Frank Baressi, 62, the driver of the truck and owner of Okemah Express LLC, said the Tesla driver was "playing Harry Potter on the TV screen" at the time of the crash and driving so quickly that "he went so fast through my trailer I didn't see him."

 "It was still playing when he died and snapped a telephone pole a quarter mile down the road," Baressi told The Associated Press in an interview from his home in Palm Harbor, Florida. He acknowledged he couldn't see the movie, only heard it.

Update 3 (Thursday, July 7th):  Florida Highway Patrol said Thursday that both a computer (laptop) and a DVD player were confirmed in the vehicle, but neither were found running after the crash.  Investigators on the scence could not determine whether the driver was operating either of the two at the time of the accident.

Since the announcement, Tesla has issued a blog post noting it is the first fatality in over 130 million miles Autopilot has been in operation, and also gives its own account of the accident:

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.

Full police crash report documents can also be found here (LA Times).

We note that the fatality in this case, 40-year-old Ohio resident Joshua Brown (obit), also appears to be the same person who reported in April that the Tesla Autopilot system potentially saved his life (YouTube video of earlier Autopilot crash avoidance incident below):


Below: Tesla's statement on the accident and investigation

A Tragic Loss

Autopilot in control of a Model S

Autopilot in control of a Model S

We learned yesterday evening that NHTSA is opening a preliminary evaluation into the performance of Autopilot during a recent fatal crash that occurred in a Model S. 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.

It is important to note that Tesla disables Autopilot by default and requires explicit acknowledgement that the system is new technology and still in a public beta phase before it can be enabled. 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. Additionally, every time that Autopilot is engaged, the car reminds the driver to “Always keep your hands on the wheel. Be prepared to take over at any time.” The system also makes frequent checks to ensure that the driver's hands remain on the wheel and provides visual and audible alerts if hands-on is not detected. It then gradually slows down the car until hands-on is detected again.

We do this to ensure that every time the feature is used, it is used as safely as possible. As more real-world miles accumulate and the software logic accounts for increasingly rare events, the probability of injury will keep decreasing. Autopilot is getting better all the time, but it is not perfect and still requires the driver to remain alert. Nonetheless, 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.

The customer who died in this crash had a loving family and we are beyond saddened by their loss. He was a friend to Tesla and the broader EV community, a person who spent his life focused on innovation and the promise of technology and who believed strongly in Tesla’s mission. We would like to extend our deepest sympathies to his family and friends.

Hat tip to Lanny H!