NHTSA Opens Investigation on Tesla Model S Autopilot after Fatal Crash

Tesla Autopilot System

The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) opened a preliminary investigation on the Autopilot system of Tesla Motors (NASDAQ:TSLA) following a fatal crash involving its Model S vehicle.

The NHTSA told CNBC that the Model S with a 2015 operating system was in the Autopilot mode when the accident happened. The agency is investigating 25,000 Model S vehicles

According to the agency, the fatal accident “calls for an examination of the design and performance of any driving aids in use at the time of the crash.” The agency needs to investigate the problem and determine that the vehicles are not safe before ordering a recall.

In a blog post, Tesla confirmed that the agency is investigating the performance of its Autopilot system.  The electric manufacturer informed that NHTSA about the accident immediately after it happened.

First known fatality where Autopilot was engaged

Tesla said, “This is the first known fatality in just over 130 million miles where the 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.”

According to the company, the Model S was on a divided highway and the Autopilot was engaged when a tractor trailer drove across the highway perpendicular to the car. The driver or the Autopilot did not notice the white side of the tractor trailer against a bright lit sky, so the brake was not applied.

The Model S passed under the trailer because of the high ride-height of the trailer and positioning across the road. The first impact was between the windshield and the trailer.  The car’s safety systems “would have likely prevented serious injury as it has in numerous other similar incidents” if the impact was on the front or rear of the trailer even at high speed, according to Tesla.

Tesla also emphasized that the NHTSA is simply conducting “a preliminary evaluation to determine whether the system worked according to expectations.”

Tesla disables Autopilot by default

Furthermore, the electric car manufacturer explained that Autopilot is disabled by default and required explicit acknowledgement that the system is a new technology and still in a public beta phase before it can be enabled.

Tesla said the acknowledgement box of the car provides explanation about the Autopilot system when a driver activates it. The drivers are informed that the Autopilot is an “assist feature” that requires their hands on the steering wheel at all times and they need maintain control and responsibility of their car while using it.

Moreover, Tesla said the vehicle reminds the driver to “always keep your hand on the wheel” while the Autopilot is engaged.