U.S. opens investigation in Tesla after fatal crash in Autopilot mode

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A Tesla Driver Was Killed in a Crash While Using Autopilot

WASHINGTON, June 30 (Reuters) - A fatal accident in which the driver of a Tesla Motors Inc Model S operating in Autopilot mode was killed in a collision with a truck has prompted an investigation by federal highway safety regulators, the U.S. government and Tesla disclosed on Thursday.

The investigation of the first known fatality to involve a Model S operating on Autopilot comes as Tesla and other automakers are gearing up to offer systems that allow vehicles to pilot themselves under certain conditions across a wide range of vehicles over the next several years.

The accident that killed Joshua Brown on a clear, dry roadway on May 7 in Williston, Florida, will add fuel to a debate within the auto industry and in legal circles over the safety of systems that take partial control of steering and braking from drivers.

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Google's new self-driving prototype car drives around a parking lot during a demonstration at Google campus on Wednesday, May 13, 2015, in Mountain View, Calif. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)
Shown is the dashboard of Daimler's Freightliner Inspiration self-driving truck Wednesday, May 6, 2015, in Las Vegas. Although much attention has been paid to autonomous vehicles being developed by Google and traditional car companies, Daimler believes that automated tractor-trailers will be rolling along highways before self-driving cars are cruising around the suburbs. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff (L) takes a ride in a self-driving car at Google headquarters in Mountain View, California on Wednesday, July 01, 2015.AFP PHOTO/JOSH EDELSON (Photo credit should read Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)
An Autopilot self-driving sign sits on the window of a Tesla Motors Inc. electric automobile store in Munich, Germany, on Monday, March 30, 2015. Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk wants to transform Tesla into more of a mass-market automaker by building a battery-cell factory big enough to supply 500,000 vehicles by 2020. Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg via Getty Images
FILE - In this Sept. 25, 2012, file photo, California Gov. Jerry Brown, front left, rides in a driverless car to a bill signing at Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. California state officials on Thursday, June 18, 2015 released reports detailing six accidents that involved self-driving car prototypes, reversing a policy that had shielded details of how the next-generation technology is performing during testing on public roads. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)
A Tesla Motors Inc. Model S electric automobile fitted with Robert Bosch GmbH automated driving technology drives on a test track in Boxberg, Germany, on Tuesday, May 19, 2015. The market for automated-driving systems might total $42 billion by 2025, Boston Consulting Group estimated in January. Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A GPS driving sensor antennae sits on the back of a Tesla Motors Inc. Model S electric automobile at the Robert Bosch GmbH driverless technology press event in Boxberg, Germany, on Tuesday, May 19, 2015. The market for automated-driving systems might total $42 billion by 2025, Boston Consulting Group estimated in January. Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg via Getty Images
MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA - FEBRUARY 02: U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx inspects a Google self-driving car at the Google headquarters on February 2, 2015 in Mountain View, California. U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx joined Google Chairman Eric Schmidt for a fireside chat where he unveiled Beyond Traffic, a new analysis from the U.S. Department of Transportation that anticipates the trends and choices facing our transportation system over the next three decades. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
A camera peers out from the front grill of Google's self-driving car in Mountain View, California, on May 13, 2014. A white Lexus cruised along a road near the Google campus, braking for pedestrians and scooting over in its lane to give bicyclists ample space. AFP PHOTO/Glenn CHAPMAN (Photo credit should read GLENN CHAPMAN/AFP/Getty Images)
MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA - SEPTEMBER 25: People look at camera on top of a Google self-driving car at the Google headquarters on September 25, 2012 in Mountain View, California. California Gov. Jerry Brown signed State Senate Bill 1298 that allows driverless cars to operate on public roads for testing purposes. The bill also calls for the Department of Motor Vehicles to adopt regulations that govern licensing, bonding, testing and operation of the driverless vehicles before January 2015. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
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Tesla said in a blogpost on Thursday "neither Autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied."

Tesla shares fell as much as 3 percent, or $6.28, in afterhours trading on news of the fatal crash on Autopilot and the investigation. The company emphasized the unusual nature of the crash and that it was the first fatality in more than 130 million miles of use.

"It is important to note that Tesla disables Autopilot by default and requires explicit acknowledgement that the system is new technology and still in a public beta phase before it can be enabled," Tesla said in a statement Thursday.

"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 that 'you need to maintain control and responsibility for your vehicle' while using it."

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration 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 the agency could seek to order a recall if it finds the vehicles were unsafe.

NHTSA said preliminary reports indicate the vehicle crash occurred when a tractor-trailer made a left turn in front of the Tesla at an intersection.

A police report obtained by Reuters states that the Model S operated by Brown went under the trailer of a truck that turned left in front of the car. The Tesla's roof was torn off, and the car kept going, leaving the road, striking a fence, crossing a field, passing through another fence and finally hitting a utility pole about 100 feet south of the road, according to the report.

The company 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."

When Autopilot launched in October, Tesla CEO Elon Musk cautioned the hotly anticipated function was in beta mode, or a test phase of development, with full 'hands-off' driving not recommended.

Tesla said that "Autopilot is getting better all the time, but it is not perfect and still requires the driver to remain alert. Nonetheless, when used in conjunction with driver oversight, the data is unequivocal that Autopilot reduces driver workload and results in a statistically significant improvement in safety when compared to purely manual driving."

In January, Tesla updated the Autopilot driving systems in Model S sedans to put new limits on its hands-free operation, which has been both praised for its innovation while criticized for having been launched too early.

The function will now be restricted on residential roads or roads without a center divider, meaning the car cannot drive faster than the speed limit maximum plus five miles (8 km) per hour.

A host of subsequent videos posted by Tesla drivers on YouTube showed near-misses on the road with Autopilot, prompting Musk to say he might curb the function to minimize the possibility of people doing "crazy things."

(Reporting by David Shepardson Additional reporting by Alexandria Sage and Bernie Woodall; Editing by Chris Reese and Diane Craft)


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