One person died in a May crash in Florida involving a Tesla Model S cruising on its semi-autonomous Autopilot mode, as Tesla has officially confirmed. NHTSA is currently investigating the wreck.
It was in a Model S last month, and only now are details of the crash public, thanks to a statement from Tesla and an investigation from NHTSA.
The crash, as reported by Tesla itself, happened when neither the driver nor the car’s sensors could see a tractor trailer pulling across the highway. The Tesla crashed into its high side, the trailer breaking right into the windshield of the car.
Here’s Tesla’s full statement, titled “A Tragic Loss.”
We learned yesterday evening that NHTSA is opening a preliminary evaluation into the performance of Autopilot during a recent fatal crash that occurred in a Model S. This is the first known fatality in just over 130 million miles where Autopilot was activated. Among all vehicles in the US, there is a fatality every 94 million miles. Worldwide, there is a fatality approximately every 60 million miles. It is important to emphasize that the NHTSA action is simply a preliminary evaluation to determine whether the system worked according to expectations.
Following our standard practice, Tesla informed NHTSA about the incident immediately after it occurred. 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. Neither Autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied.
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.
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. 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. Additionally, every time that Autopilot is engaged, the car reminds the driver to “Always keep your hands on the wheel. Be prepared to take over at any time.” The system also makes frequent checks to ensure that the driver’s hands remain on the wheel and provides visual and audible alerts if hands-on is not detected. It then gradually slows down the car until hands-on is detected again.
We do this to ensure that every time the feature is used, it is used as safely as possible. As more real-world miles accumulate and the software logic accounts for increasingly rare events, the probability of injury will keep decreasing. 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.
The customer who died in this crash had a loving family and we are beyond saddened by their loss. He was a friend to Tesla and the broader EV community, a person who spent his life focused on innovation and the promise of technology and who believed strongly in Tesla’s mission. We would like to extend our deepest sympathies to his family and friends.
The crash, as mentioned, is currently under investigation by NHTSA, as Reuters and others report.
UPDATE: The Verge, Reuters, and the New York Times have more details on the crash. It happened on a divided highway in Williston, Florida, not far from Gainesville and about a hundred miles north of Orlando.
At the wheel was 45-year-old Ohio resident Joshua Brown, who was killed when the tractor-trailer made a left in front of him. NHTSA said this in an official statement:
Preliminary reports indicate the vehicle crash occurred when a tractor-trailer made a left turn in front of the Tesla at an intersection on a noncontrolled access highway. The driver of the Tesla died due to injuries sustained in the crash.
The Times notes that NHTSA found out about the crash from Tesla, and that NHTSA sent an investigative team to the site of the wreck.
UPDATE 2: Joshua Brown’s obituary here notes that he was a Navy SEAL, created his own tech company, Nexu Innovations Inc., and worked in tactical electronics.
The Verge also notes that Tesla referred to Brown as a friend of the company, and that he recorded a somewhat viral video of his Model S nicknamed ‘Tessy’ having a near crash earlier. He said he had not been watching the road and that his car saved his life.
UPDATE: The Levy County Journal, the local newspaper in Florida, describes the horrific crash thusly:
The top of Joshua Brown’s 2015 Tesla Model S vehicle was torn off by the force of the collision. The truck driver, Frank Baressi, 62, Tampa was not injured in the crash.
The FHP said the tractor-trailer was traveling west on US 27A in the left turn lane toward 140th Court. Brown’s car was headed east in the outside lane of U.S. 27A.
When the truck made a left turn onto NE 140th Court in front of the car, the car’s roof struck the underside of the trailer as it passed under the trailer. The car continued to travel east on U.S. 27A until it left the roadway on the south shoulder and struck a fence. The car smashed through two fences and struck a power pole. The car rotated counter-clockwise while sliding to its final resting place about 100 feet south of the highway. Brown died at the scene.