NHTSA and Tesla release statements concerning fatal accident involving Autopilot system

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The USA’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and Tesla Motors have both released statements concerning a fatal accident that involved a Model S saloon, which had the auto maker’s Autopilot automated driving system feature activated.

The NHTSA has announced that it will look at whether the Autopilot function performed as expected, or was at fault. The NHTSA’s official statement says:

“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 crash occurred when a tractor-trailer made a left turn in front of the Tesla at an intersection on a non-controlled access highway.

“During the Preliminary Evaluation, NHTSA will gather additional data regarding this incident and other information regarding the automated driving systems.”

The Autopilot feature is currently installed in 25,000 Tesla Model S vehicles, but the company is keen to emphasize that it is in public beta testing mode. In the company’s online blog, which it uses for public press releases, Tesla states,

“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 USA, 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.

“Tesla informed NHTSA about the incident immediately after it occurred. We know 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 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 ‘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 alerts if hands-on is not detected.

“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 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.”

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Tom has edited Traffic Technology International magazine and the Traffic Technology Today website since he joined the company in May 2014. Prior to this he worked on some of the UK's leading consumer magazine titles including Men's Health and Glamour, beginning his career in journalism in 1997 after graduating with a law degree from the London School of Economics (LSE).

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