Tesla Motors Facing SEC Investigation Over Autopilot-Related Death

Yet another agency is looking into a fatal crash involving a 2015 Tesla Model S. The latest to don its detective cap is the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), which is investigating whether Tesla ran afoul of securities regulations by not telling investors of the crash involving the company's self-driving car technology.

The accident occurred in early May and took the life of Joshua Brown, the owner of the Model S that struck an 18-wheeler when the tractor trailer crossed in front of him on a divided highway. At the time of the accident, the vehicle's Autopilot mode was engaged. Unfortunately the sensors that detect the surroundings of the Model S failed to detect the 18-wheeler, as the tractor trailer's white side blended in with the brightly lit sky. As a result, the Autopilot function never applied the brake, and neither did Brown.

Tesla Model S

Tesla reported the accident to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and began its own investigation into whether the Model S was in Autopilot mode at the time of the crash, but the automaker made no mention of the incident to investors in its securities filing. Now the SEC is investigating whether Tesla should have mentioned the crash as a "material" event that could have influenced investors, a person familiar with the matter told The Wall Street Journal.

Just as it sounds, Autopilot mode allows vehicles to drive themselves, though the technology is still in beta. On top of that, drivers are supposed to remain alert and ready to take manual control when and if the need arises. In this particular instance, there are reports that a DVD player was found among the wreckage, raising the question as to whether Brown was watching a movie when his Tesla S crashed into the 18-wheeler. There are conflicting reports from witnesses as to whether a Harry Potter movie was playing amid the debris following the crash.

The investigation by the SEC is said to be at the early stages at this point, and may not lead to any action at all being taken.

"Tesla has not received any communication from the SEC regarding this issue,” Tesla said. “Our blog post last week provided the relevant information about this issue."

Meanwhile, both the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTS) and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) are investigating the accident as well. The latter is particularly noteworthy because the NTSB doesn't typically open probes into highway accidents. It's also on record as being skeptical of self-driving car technologies and has investigated prior (non-fatal) incidents.

According to Tesla, this was the first fatal crash involving its Autopilot mode in more than 130 million miles of driving. By comparison, a fatality occurs every 94 million miles in the U.S., and every 60 million miles worldwide.