NHTSA investigates Tesla after fatal crash while vehicle was in autonomous mode

tesla model s autopilot expected update crash death
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is investigating Tesla’s Autopilot autonomous-driving system in the wake of a fatal crash. The agency said the May crash involved a 2015 Tesla Model S driving with the system engaged.

Updated on 7-2-2016 By Alex Kalogiannis: Added quotes from a liability expert, past statements made by Elon Musk, and info on the DVD player discovered at the scene. 

The incident “calls for an examination of the design and performance of any driving aids in use at the time of the crash,” the NHTSA told CNBC. Depending on what it finds, the agency could order a recall of the roughly 25,000 Tesla Model S and Model X electric cars equipped with Autopilot. The system, which allows cars to autonomously follow traffic, brake, and make lane changes, was launched as a public beta in August.

In a blog post published Thursday, Tesla said this was the “first known fatality in just over 130 million miles where Autopilot was activated.” The company noted that among all vehicles in the U.S., there is fatality every 94 million miles. The worldwide figure is 60 million miles, Tesla said. CEO Elon Musk called the crash a “tragic loss” on Twitter.

“It is important to emphasize that the NHTSA action is simply a preliminary evaluation to determine whether the system worked according to expectations,” the Tesla blog post said.

Tesla said it informed the NHTSA of the crash “immediately after it occurred.” The Model S collided with a tractor-trailer that had crossed a divided highway. The car passed underneath the trailer, and the bottom of the trailer hit its windshield. Had the Model S impacted the front or rear of the trailer directly, Tesla claims its safety systems could have prevented the fatality.

“Neither Autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor-trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied,” Tesla said. It added that Autopilot is still in the public beta phase, and that drivers must remain alert. Turning on the system requires drivers to acknowledge a message reminding them to “maintain control and responsibility” for the vehicle, and to “be prepared to take over at any time,” the company noted.

The issue of liability will be one that will be debated for some time. Sandee Perfetto, Director of Personal Auto Product Development at Verisk Insurance Solutions spoke to Digital Trends and reminded us that these questions were being asked even before autonomous driving was on the table. “Even now, when we have so many advanced crash avoidance technologies… you get the questions of ‘where is the line?’ Who is responsible?”

In in interview with Bloomberg in 2014, Musk stressed how much the driver is very much still a part of the system, even with autopilot engaged. “We’re going to be quite clear with customers that the responsibility remains with the driver. We’re not asserting that the car is capable of driving in the absence of driver oversight.”

Further evidence of the driver’s lack of oversight was confirmed by local authorities. Reuters reports a portable DVD player with a film from the Harry Potter film series showing on the screen was found at the scene of the incident.

Digital Trends reached out to Tesla for its perspective, but the automaker redirected us back to the “tragic loss” post on its blog, as this is its only statement on the matter.

Product Review

2019 Volkswagen Jetta offers German refinement and tech at an affordable price

With enough tech to make villains jealous, the Volkswagen Jetta punches above its class as a forward-thinking sedan. Spacious, comfortable, and efficient, the Jetta is a refined offering. German refinement comes with a serious attitude.
Cars

Tesla wirelessly gives the Model 3 a 5-percent increase in power

Tesla again showed the potential of its innovative over-the-air software updating system by making the Model 3 five percent more powerful via a firmware update. The Performance model gained 23 horsepower.
Cars

Nvidia’s new simulator brings virtual learning to autonomous vehicle developers

Nvidia introduced a simulator for testing autonomous vehicle technologies. Drive Constellation is a cloud-based platform technology vendors can use to validate systems efficiently, safely, and much faster than with vehicles on real roads.
Cars

Tesla gives us a cryptic look at its cyberpunk, Blade Runner-inspired pickup

Tesla has started designing its long-promised pickup truck. The yet-unnamed model will come with dual-motor all-wheel drive and lots of torque, plus it will be able to park itself. It could make its debut in 2019.
Cars

BMW 2 Series Gran Coupe teased way ahead of its November debut

The BMW 2 Series Gran Coupe is coming to the United States, eventually. The new compact BMW won't be unveiled until the 2019 Los Angeles Auto Show in November. The Gran Coupe will be based on a front-wheel drive platform.
Cars

Tesla lets you skip the dealership, order a car from the comfort of your couch

Tesla has always bypassed traditional dealerships, and it has now adopted an online-only sales model that lets customers configure and order their car without leaving their couch. Here's what you need to know.
Product Review

The Ferrari Portofino is the super stallion you’ll want to drive every day

With the introduction of the Portofino, Ferrari addresses the California T’s stylistic shortcomings while improving comfort, convenience, and performance. There’s little “entry-level” about this super stallion.
Cars

Autonomous shuttle rides coming to New York City via Optimus Ride

Workers at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in NY City will soon be able to make their way around the 300-acre industrial park in Optimus Ride's self-driving shuttles. The tech startup says it's the first trial of its kind in the state.
Cars

Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi group uses Microsoft cloud platform for connected cars

The Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance is launching a new cloud platform for its cars. Based on Microsoft Azure, the Alliance Intelligent Cloud will enable features like connected services and over-the-air updates.
Cars

The 2019 Toyota C-HR gains a popular tech feature as its price comes down

Toyota has updated the C-HR, its entry-level crossover, by adding an entry-level trim level to the lineup. Every model regardless of price also comes standard with an 8.0-inch touchscreen compatible with Apple CarPlay.
Cars

The 2020 Porsche Cayenne Coupe is an exercise in form-over-function design

Porsche expanded its lineup of SUVs with a swoopier evolution of the Cayenne named Cayenne Coupe. Don't let the name fool you: it still has four doors. It stands out with a fastback-like roofline that's lower than the Cayenne's.
Product Review

Chris is the virtual co-pilot phone-obsessives need in their car

Driving while using your phone is dangerous, and often illegal. Meet Chris, the digital assistant for your car that wants to help keep your hands off your phone, and your eyes on the road.
Cars

Protect yourself and your ride with our favorite dash cams

Dashboard cameras can assist drivers in car accident claims, settle speeding ticket disputes, and even catch glimpses of incoming meteors, among other things. Here, we've compiled a list of the most noteworthy offerings available.
Cars

Tesla revives its referral program with chances to win a Roadster

Tesla has revived its referral program that ended in February because of cost pressures. This time around the perks aren't quite as diverse, though it does offer regular chances to win a Roadster or Model Y.