A fatal accident involving a Tesla Model S on Autopilot and a tractor-trailer, which is just now coming to light but happened last month, prompts a preliminary evaluation by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The evaluation will determine whether the system worked according to expectations and it is the first step before an investigation which could theoretically lead to a recall.
Tesla issued a statement regarding the accident, which you can read in full below:
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It looks like it could be the first reported death caused by a crash while the Autopilot was activated.
Thought the Autopilot was indeed on when the crash occurred, it doesn’t seem to have much to do with the accident the way Tesla describes it:
“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.”
Based on the description, we are talking about a freak accident reminiscent of another separate recent “Tesla Autopilot accident”, though at much lower speed, which resulted in a trailer hitting the windshield of the car without the sensors detecting it because of the height:
Tesla Model S driver claims his car crashed into a trailer on its own, Tesla says ‘Summon’ was activated
In its statement, the company is again making the case that drivers should always monitor the vehicle and the road while using the Autopilot.
The police beat describes the accident in more details:
“On May 7 at 3:40 p.m. on U.S. 27 near the BP Station west of Williston, a 45-year-old Ohio man was killed when he drove under the trailer of an 18-wheel semi. The top of Joshua Brown’s 2015 Tesla Model S vehicle was torn off by the force of the collision. The truck driver, Frank Baressi, 62, Tampa was not injured in the crash.
The FHP said the tractor-trailer was traveling west on US 27A in the left turn lane toward 140th Court. Brown’s car was headed east in the outside lane of U.S. 27A.
When the truck made a left turn onto NE 140th Court in front of the car, the car’s roof struck the underside of the trailer as it passed under the trailer. The car continued to travel east on U.S. 27A until it left the roadway on the south shoulder and struck a fence. The car smashed through two fences and struck a power pole. The car rotated counter-clockwise while sliding to its final resting place about 100 feet south of the highway. Brown died at the scene.Charges are pending.”
We now learn that the victim was Joshua Brown, an active Tesla community member, who just a month prior to his accident, credited Tesla’s Autopilot for saving him in near miss caught on video.
Here’s Tesla’s statement in full:
A Tragic Loss
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.
Featured Image: A member of the media test drives a Tesla Motors Inc. Model S car equipped with Autopilot in Palo Alto, California, U.S., on Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2015. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images