The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on Thursday said it is investigating the automatic vehicle control systems in an estimated 25,000 Model S cars after a fatal highway crash in Williston, Florida in May. A Model S collided with a truck, killing the 40-year-old Tesla driver.
"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 non-controlled access highway," NHTSA spokesman Bryan Thomas told Edmunds. "The driver of the Tesla died due to injuries sustained in the crash.
"NHTSA's Office of Defects Investigation will examine the design and performance of the automated driving systems in use at the time of the crash."
Tesla described the Tesla driver as "a friend to Tesla and the broader EV community," in a statement on its website.
"Our condolences for the tragic loss," said Tesla CEO Elon Musk in a tweet.
The company said it appeared the Autopilot feature in the Model S was unable to notice "the white side of the tractor-trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied."
It added: "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."
Tesla is in the forefront of the development of self-driving technology, but markets the Autopilot feature as an aid for drivers. The technology enables the Model S to do several tasks, including automatically steer down the highway and change lanes without the driver intervening.
Tesla emphasized 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."
It added: "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."
Tesla said this is the first known fatality in just over 130 million miles where Autopilot was activated.
"This tragic accident is a sobering reminder that while automated vehicle technology has come a long way, it still has a long way to go," said Edmunds.com Senior Consumer Advice Editor Ron Montoya. "Meanwhile, it's important for car shoppers to know that no single technology on the market today can make a vehicle 100 percent safe."
Federal safety regulators will examine whether the Autopilot mode performed as expected or was at fault.
"This preliminary evaluation is being opened to examine the design and performance of any automated driving systems in use at the time of the crash," NHTSA said.
Such investigations can sometimes lead to a vehicle recall, but the Model S has not been recalled at this point.
The fatal crash, which grabbed headlines around the world, could undermine the rollout of self-driving vehicle technology, just as U.S. regulators are urging its widespread adoption.
Edmunds says: Consumers can rest assured that engineers at all automakers — including those at Tesla — will carefully study the circumstances around this accident.