First Known Tesla Autopilot Death Spurs Federal Investigation

The first such incident involving a commercial semi-autonomous car

Tesla Model S

Tesla Model S

The Tesla Model S has self-driving features.Tesla Motors, Inc, via Wikimedia Commons

A common pitch for self-driving cars is safety benefits—a common figure is that they could save 300,000 lives per decade if implemented in the United States.

But that doesn't mean they're foolproof, nor an immediate fix to traffic fatalities. Following the first known death in an autonomous or semi-autonomous car, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is investigating Tesla's semi-autonomous Autopilot feature on the company's Model S car.

Tesla released its response today, titled 'A Tragic Loss.'

We learned yesterday evening that NHTSA is opening a preliminary evaluation into the performance of Autopilot during a recent fatal crash that occurred in a Model S. This is the first known fatality in just over 130 million miles where Autopilot was activated. Among all vehicles in the US, there is a fatality every 94 million miles. Worldwide, there is a fatality approximately every 60 million miles. It is important to emphasize that the NHTSA action is simply a preliminary evaluation to determine whether the system worked according to expectations. Following our standard practice, Tesla informed NHTSA about the incident immediately after it occurred. 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.

In the letter, Tesla continues to reiterate their standard safety protocol for Autopilot. The company explicitly says that Autopilot “is an assist feature that requires you to keep your hands on the steering wheel at all times," and the operator should keep control of the car at all times.

But it seems some Tesla owners are putting a lot more faith in the semi-autonomous offering. Late last month a video surfaced of a Tesla driver appearing to sleep while his car drove on the highway.

This death could be a blow to public perception of the autonomous car industry, a quickly inflating bubble that hasn't yet weathered a tragedy like this.