Elon Musk’s Tesla Motors has confirmed that the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) has contacted the company to let it know that its regulators were investigating the first known death of a driver of the acclaimed model while using the company’s autopilot.
In a blog post published late Thursday afternoon Tesla wrote:
“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.”
As a result, Tesla’s stock saw a 3% loss late in Thursday trading while Mobileye, which supplies cameras for Tesla and others saw a precipitous drop of 5% as well today.
The accident which caused the death of a Model S driver occurred on a divided highway where a tractor-trailer lost control and went perpendicular into the driver’s path. It’s believed that the accident occurred so quickly that neither the tractor-trailer nor the Model S, with autopilot engaged, applied the brakes to potentially avoid the accident(?).
Given the height disparity between the vehicles, it appears the underside of the semi first made contact with the windshield of the Tesla Model S.
Tesla was quick to point out its safety record and said that its car “would likely have prevented serious injury as it has in numerous other similar incidents.”
It should be pointed out that, apparently, the accident occurred “against a brightly lit sky” where neither driver may have seen the others’ vehicle.
Do to the engagement of the autopilot on the Tesla, the NHTS said the incident “calls for an examination of the design and performance of any driving aids in use at the time of the crash.”
While it’s far too early to begin to try to ascertain if any fault in the driver’s death will fall to Tesla, it reads like a freak accident.
Numerous reviewers of Tesla models equipped with autopilot have suggested that the system is brilliant and telemetry and eyewitness accounts will likely not be able to ascertain what truly happened.
Tesla maintains that the feature, while useful is not enough, and has told drivers that “you need to maintain control and responsibility for your vehicle.” The autopilot function does not countermand the driver’s application of the brakes.
However, with new technology like the autopilot feature on the Model S and Model X, expect the NHTSA to put this accident under the microscope and then go over any data with a fine-tooth comb given the tragedy and the engagement of the “new” system.