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Car and Driver: Tesla Driver Involved in Fatal Crash While Using “Autopilot” Mode

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2015-Tesla-Model-S-P85D-PLACEMENTFederal safety regulators opened a preliminary investigation Thursday into the performance of the Tesla Motors’ Model S after one of the vehicles was involved in a fatal crash while operating in semi-autonomous mode.

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The driver of a Model S was killed on May 7 in Williston, Florida, when the vehicle, with its “Autopilot” feature engaged, failed to sense a tractor trailer that was making a left turn across a divided highway. The crash marks the first known time a motorist has been killed in a car operating in a self-driving mode.

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Tesla said it learned of the preliminary investigation late Wednesday. In a written statement, the company acknowledged the fatal crash occurred in autonomous mode. “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 officials wrote. “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.”

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The preliminary investigation, conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, will examine the design and performance of the Model S and its components. Investigators could choose to upgrade the investigation into an engineering analysis at a later date, which could be the prelude to a recall.

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Tesla introduced the “Autopilot” feature in late 2015, and said the fatality is the first among 130 million miles of driving. Company officials noted the feature remains in a “public beta phase” which requires its users to acknowledge they remain ultimately responsible for the vehicle and its performance. “Autopilot is getting better all the time, but it is not perfect and still requires the driver to remain alert,” the company said. There have been no statements from any representatives of the driver.

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