Tesla Responds to First Known Self-Driving Car Death

NHTSA has opened an investigation into a fatality in a Model S on Autopilot.

The first official human casualty of the self-driving car era may be upon us. Tesla announced today that the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration has opened an investigation into a recent fatal crash by a Model S using the Autopilot self-driving system at the time of the accident.

According to Tesla's blog post announcing the investigation, the Model S in question was traveling down a divided highway when a tractor-trailer passed in front of it at a right angle to the car's direction of travel. Due to the lack of contrast between the white trailer and the bright sky, neither the Autopilot's camera nor, presumably, the driver noticed the truck until it was too late, and the brakes were never applied. The body of the Tesla slid below the trailer, but the bottom edge of the trailer struck the Model S at windshield—i.e. human head—level.

Tesla notes that the accident marks the first known death in more than 130 million miles of Autopilot driving across the carmaker's lineup. Globally, the carmaker states, a fatality occurs for roughly every 60 million miles of driving; among all vehicles in the United States, there is a death roughly every 90 million miles.

Every Autopilot-equipped Tesla Model S vehicle is equipped with an automatic emergency braking system designed to assist in stopping the car in a potential accident situation. However, as Tesla has made clear on repeated occasions, ultimate responsibility for control of the car lies with the driver, not with the car itself. And if the tractor-trailer in question blended into the sky well enough that even human eyes couldn't see it, it's understandable that a camera could miss it, too.