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Government regulators are looking into fatal Tesla crash involving Autopilot

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Tesla announced today that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has opened an investigation into a recent fatal crash of a Model S with the company’s Autopilot feature activated.

The accident took place on May 7th in a small West Florida town called Williston. The Florida Highway Patrol is also conducting its own investigation of the accident, according to a public affairs officer there.

The same officer reported that Tesla has, since the fatal accident in May, sent engineers down to Ocala, Florida to assist investigators in accessing data they needed to evaluate the causes of the crash.

Tesla offered an account of the event in a blog post titled “A Tragic Loss” that went up today, detailing the crash, an “extremely rare circumstance,” which occurred on a divided highway.

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 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.

According to the carmaker, the vehicle’s crash safety system would have been activated had the Model S collided with the front or rear of the trailer, rather than the side. It also took great pains to reiterate the safety procedures it has set out for the Autopilot feature, which is still in the public beta phase.

The company isn’t offering much more in the way of details about the incident or driver, though it did note that he was “a friend of Tesla,” who has been involved in the EV and technology communities in general.

According to traffic crash records reviewed by TechCrunch, the victim was, in fact, a veteran of the U.S. Navy and famous fan of Tesla, Joshua D. Brown of Canton, Ohio.

Forty-year-old Brown also founded the customer fulfillment technology startup Nexu Innovations. He made news back in April when he posted a YouTube video of a near collision with a merging truck, which Autopilot effectively steered clear of.

Screen Shot 2016-06-30 at 6.34.03 PM

When he died, Brown was driving the same black, 2015 Tesla Model S, the roof of which was torn off in a collision when a tractor-trailer turned at an intersection.

The driver of the other vehicle, a red, 2014 Freightliner Cascadia, was not injured.

According to the crash report, the Tesla ran off the road after the collision.

The NHTSA’s investigation could ultimately prove the first step toward a larger recall request from the organization, should the vehicles be deemed unsafe.

According to the agency Communications Director Bryan Thomas, “NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation will examine the design and performance of the automated driving systems in use at the time of the crash. During the Preliminary Evaluation, NHTSA will gather additional data regarding this incident and other information regarding the automated driving systems.”

 

Updates: This post was updated with new information from Florida’s Highway Saftey & Motor Vehicles Department at 5:00 p.m. PT on June 30, 2016. Tesla technology partner Mobileye has also weighed in on the matter