Federal officials are investigating a crash that killed the driver of a Model S, a Tesla vehicle with a partially autonomous driving system, in a move that has major implications for the future of driverless vehicles.
“This is the first known fatality in just over 130 million miles where Autopilot was activated …” Tesla wrote in a statement on Thursday. “It is important to emphasize that the NHTSA action is simply a preliminary evaluation to determine whether the system worked according to expectations.”
The investigation may be standard procedure, but it’s also certain to influence the ongoing conversation about the safety of self-driving vehicles.
The Model S isn’t technically a driverless car, but Tesla has been a vocal player in the race to bring truly driverless cars to market. The company’s Autopilot feature is an assistive technology, meaning that drivers are instructed to keep their hands on the wheel while using it—even though it is sophisticated enough to complete tasks like merging onto the highway. It wasn’t clear from Tesla’s statement how engaged the driver was at the time of the crash.
“What we know is that the vehicle was on a divided highway with Autopilot engaged when a tractor trailer drove across the highway perpendicular to the Model S,” Tesla said. “Neither Autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied.”