The US federal highways safety authority – NHTSA – is to investigate a fatal accident involving a Tesla Model S being driven in Autopilot mode.

The fatal accident involved a crash with a truck that crossed the car’s path, the car failing to brake. It is the first known fatality to involve a Model S operating on Autopilot. It will fuel discussion and debate in the auto industry over the safety of systems that rely on image sensors and radar systems to take control of steering and braking from drivers. Some have argued that the transition period that we have now – cars being able to operate in human or automated mode – while the technology is new, brings particular challenges for safe operation. Others point to high accident statistics involving human drivers.  

The accident in Florida killed 40-year-old Joshua Brown as a freight truck tractor-trailer made a left turn in front of the Tesla at an intersection.

Tesla said that “neither Autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied.” Reuters reported that a Florida Highway Patrol report said the Model S windscreen hit the side of the trailer and the car passed underneath, kept going, eventually leaving the road.

Tesla said in a statement that customers are required to give “explicit acknowledgement” that they realise Autopilot is new technology still under development, otherwise the system will remain off.

“When drivers activate Autopilot, the acknowledgment box explains, among other things, that Autopilot ‘is an assist feature that requires you to keep your hands on the steering wheel at all times,” and Tesla said that “you need to maintain control and responsibility for your vehicle’ while using it.”

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The NHTSA said the crash “calls for an examination of the design and performance of any driving aids in use at the time of the crash.” The agency said it has opened a preliminary investigation that is the first step before it could seek to order a recall if it finds the vehicles were unsafe.

Tesla said “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.”

Tesla statement