NHTSA Opens Tesla Model S Investigation After Fatal Crash Linked to Autopilot

Model S 1 photo
Photo: Tesla
We knew it was going to happen, and it did. A driver of a Tesla Model S may have died in a car crash while using the autopilot function. The incident, which involved a tractor-trailer, is now being investigated by the NHTSA and could end with a recall of sorts.
Tesla published a story called "Tragic Loss" on its blog and explained how, statistically speaking, the Autopilot system is still safe. In their words, the system has been used over 130 million miles by Tesla owners without a fatality. The average rate of a deadly crash in the US is 94 million miles, so technically, it's still safer to let the car do all the driving.

But the NHTSA will not buy that. This government organization usually has a "yes or no" approach to questions of safety.

While the circumstances of the crash have not been fully revealed yet, Tesla's statement suggests this is a fluke.

"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," a company statement reads.

While that might be so, the Model S has shown similar limitations in detecting tall trailers before. It may not be an issue of the Model S not being smart or quick enough to avoid a crash, but of hardware limitations.

The autonomous vehicle projects we've seen in recent months have a roof-mounted LIDAR system that shoots tens of beams everywhere to detect objects. In fact, the more systems it uses, the better

What is perhaps the most worrisome issue is that the driver who died may not have been paying attention to the road at all. Immediately after Autopilot was introduced, people started experimenting with reading the paper or even sleeping at the wheel. That's what we want autonomous cars for, but they might not be ready for that yet.
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About the author: Mihnea Radu
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Mihnea's favorite cars have already been built, the so-called modern classics from the '80s and '90s. He also loves local car culture from all over the world, so don't be surprised to see him getting excited about weird Japanese imports, low-rider VWs out of Germany, replicas from Russia or LS swaps down in Florida.
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