Per a tweet from CNBC’s Phil Lebau, the accident occurred May 7th in Florida. In a statement given to the press, NHTSA says that this incident,”calls for an examination of the design and performance of any driving aids in use at the time of the crash.” Tesla shares have reportedly fallen around 3% in after-hours trading according to CNBC. The car involved in the crash was a 2015 Model S, and NHTSA says it will investigate 25,000 cars.
We’ve seen minor incidents with Teslas driven in Autopilot mode, but it seems like we now have our first major incident. Tesla said in a statement today that NHTSA has opened up a preliminary evaluation into the performance of Autopilot during a fatal accident with a Model S and a tractor trailer.
Advertisement – Continue Reading Below
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.
While details remain minimal so far, there are a few quick points that can be made based off Tesla’s description of the accident.
First off, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen seen a potential issue with Autopilot not being able to sense obstructions of a certain height. Earlier this year a Model S owner claimed that his car crashed itself into a trailer. While Tesla debunked this claim and said that the man irresponsibly used the Summon parking feature of Autopilot, the incident showed that Autopilot does have its limitations in terms of detecting forward obstructions. Perhaps that happened here with the semi crossing in front of the Model S.
Tesla also points out that if the car had hit the front or rear of the trailer, that the occupant would have likely been okay. Of course, there’s no way to totally know if that is true, and the fact remains that that didn’t happen.
What is perhaps most worrisome is the issue of whether the driver was even paying attention at all before the accident happened. Tesla has faced plenty of scrutiny from regulators and other carmakers since the release of Autopilot for pushing advanced semi-autonomous technologies into its vehicles sooner than some say is safe or even responsible. Almost immediately we saw issues with drivers experimenting with the self-driving technology, and since then there have been numerous small accidents and even reports of drivers sleeping while at the wheel. Again, we do not know near enough yet to say what happened in this instance, but this surely doesn’t help Tesla’s case.
The driver killed in this accident reportedly was the same driver that recently posted a video of a close call while in Autopilot mode, according to The Verge. The video was posted to YouTube by a man named Joshua Brown, whose obituary matches the circumstances of the crash, as described in Tesla’s statement.
In its statement, Telsa said the driver killed “was a friend to Tesla and the broader EV community.”
Tesla CEO Elon Musk offered in his condolences in a tweet sent out shortly after news of the crash broke.
Our condolences for the tragic loss https://t.co/zI2100zEGL
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) June 30, 2016
This story was last updated at 5:48 p.m. ET.
Road & Track