In a blog post, Tesla Motors revealed that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has launched an investigation into the company's Autopilot system, as a Model S electric vehicle driver was killed in an accident while the feature was turned on.
The incident is said to be the first death related to a self-driving car, and it happened to a man who Tesla Motors said was a friend to the company and to the entire electric vehicle community.
Tesla Motors narrated the incident that led to the fatal car crash. According to what the company knows, the driver was travelling on a divided highway while his Tesla Model S was in Autopilot mode. A tractor trailer then drove across the highway where the electric vehicle was on. Because the tractor trailer's side was colored white, and the sky behind it was bright, the Autopilot system was not able to detect the oncoming vehicle and the brake was not applied.
The company said that the Tesla Model S passed under the tractor trailer, with the windshield of the Tesla Model S hitting the bottom of the trailer. The height of the trailer and its position in the road led to the rare circumstance of such an impact on the electric vehicle that led to the driver's death. If the front or the back of the Tesla Model S crashed into the trailer, the advanced crash safety system of the electric vehicle could likely save the driver's life, as what happened in an incident reported in May that saw all five passengers of the Tesla Model S survive a horrific crash.
Tesla Motors added that the Autopilot system requires drivers to always keep their hands on the steering wheel so that they would be able to take control of the vehicle at any time. The system frequently checks if the driver's hands are on the steering wheel, and it will provide alerts and slow down the vehicle if it detects otherwise.
The fatal crash, which occurred in Florida on May 7, will see the NHTSA examine the design and the performance of the Autopilot system of Tesla Motors, which has previously been criticized by self-driving car technology experts as launched too early.
Analysts said that the first death caused by a self-driving car should remind drivers that the technology is not yet fully dependable.
"We do not yet have fully autonomous cars," said Kelley Blue Book senior analyst Karl Brauer. "It might be this tragic event starts a kind of movement of educating consumers."