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Tesla’s Autopilot feature under investigation after fatal crash

The dash of a different Tesla Model S. Recent reports indicate the driver may have been watching a movie on a portable DVD player at the time of the crash.

By Mike Davey

Washington, DC — July 1, 2016 — Federal regulators in the US are investigating in the wake of a fatal crash involving a Tesla Model S that was operating with its self-driving Autopilot feature engaged. The driver of the Tesla, Joshua D. Brown of Ohio, died when the vehicle was in a collision with a truck in Williston, Florida.

According to the US-based National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), preliminary reports show the accident occurred when a tractor-trailer made a left turn in front of the Tesla at an intersection where there was no traffic light.
Reports from local police say the roof of the Tesla struck the underside of the trailer. The car then passed underneath, went off the road and struck two fences and a power pole. The Tesla’s driver was pronounced dead at the scene.

“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 said in a blog posting Thursday.

“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. Had the Model S impacted the front or rear of the trailer, even at high speed, its advanced crash safety system would likely have prevented serious injury as it has in numerous other similar incidents.”

There are some indications that driver distraction played a role in the crash. Sergeant Kim Montes of the Florida Highway Patrol told news agency Reuters that there was a portable DVD player in the vehicle.

According to a report from Associated Press, the truck’s driver said the Tesla driver was “playing Harry Potter on the TV screen” at the time of the accident

NHTSA is now investigating about 25,000 Tesla vehicles as a result of the crash. The federal regulatory agency has said it will gather more data about the Florida crash and will “examine the design and performance of any automated driving systems in use at the time of the crash.”

“The opening of the preliminary evaluation should not be construed as a finding that the Office of Defects Investigation believes there is either a presence or absence of a defect in the subject vehicles,” NHTSA said.

Homebrew testing by a Tesla Model S owner going by the YouTube name “KmanAuto” seems to show some difficulties with a number of the car’s self-driving and driver assist features. We must caution that the tests performed were done by amateurs and not repeated enough times to establish a large statistical universe. However, the results that have been gathered seem to indicate that more testing of these systems is required.

The amateur testing was specifically to see how well the Autopilot features when presented with a human obstacle. The car’s owner ran three tests of varying degrees of difficulty. The Tesla only managed to avoid the pedestrian in one out of the three tests.

The first test was of the Summon feature. The test was run four times and every time the car passed easily, coming to a stop before hitting the pedestrian.

The second test was done using Tesla’s traffic aware cruise control (TACC). As KmanAuto drove, his associate jumped out in front of the car. In this test, the Model S gave both visual and audible warnings, but didn’t apply the brakes or steer out of the way.

The third and final test involved the Autopilot feature, with the associate again jumping in front of the car. The car again failed to brake or steer out of the way, forcing the driver to intervene.

You can see video of the tests in the player below.

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