Tesla Reports First Death With Autopilot Engaged As Model S Strikes Tractor Trailer

tesla autopilot
We have some rather tragic news to report in the world of autonomous driving. Via a blog posting on its site, Tesla Motors reported that the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) has opened a preliminary investigation into the company after a fatal crash involving a Model S EV that was operating semi-autonomously via Autopilot.

According to reports from the Levy County Journal and from Tesla itself, the vehicle was traveling along a divided highway when a tractor trailer that was initially traveling in the opposite direction made a left turn perpendicularly in front of it. According to Tesla, “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 Model S' windshield actually struck the underside of the trailer, and vehicle passed under the trailer. Tesla claims that if 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.”

tesla autopilot 2

But this wasn’t a frontal or rear crash, and it shows that autonomous systems still can’t possibly [at this point] account for every single scenario that may occur in everyday driving — this is especially true given that human drivers can be so unpredictable. We must also remember that Autopilot is still in beta at this point in its development, which some regulators are likely to zero in on given that there are human lives at stake.

“Autopilot is getting better all the time, but it is not perfect and still requires the driver to remain alert,” Tesla continues. “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.”

Tesla was quick to point out that this is the first fatality in over 130 million collective miles of driving with Autopilot enabled. Tesla also stresses that it is still the responsibility of the driver to maintain control of the vehicle at all times.

The accident occurred just months after a Volvo engineer criticized Tesla for its implementation of Autopilot. "It gives you the impression that it's doing more than it is," said Trent Victor, Volvo senior technical leader for crash avoidance, in late April. He went on to add that Autopilot “is more of an unsupervised wannabe."