UPDATE: The man driving the Tesla Model S that had Autopilot engaged when it hit a tractor-trailer has been officially verified to be Joshua Brown, a 40-year-old former Navy SEAL and technology entrepreneur from Ohio. The fatal accident occurred in Florida.
According to an , Brown had nicknamed his car "Tessy" and was an avid fan of Tesla and Autopilot. As reported in our original story (below), Brown was known in the Tesla community for sharing videos of his Autopilot adventures on YouTube. Only a month ago he shared a video of his Model S's Autopilot system saving him from a potential accident.
Details about the crash are starting to come out, and the AP reports that "by the time firefighters arrived, the Tesla wreckage — with its roof sheared off — had come to rest in a yard hundreds of feet from the crash site." For a car to hit a tractor-trailer, lose its roof, and still be able to continue its momentum for hundreds of feet indicates a high rate of speed.
Reuters also that police found a portable DVD player in the wreckage. This, along with the the truck driver telling the AP that Brown had been watching something before the accident, points to the fact that he might have been distracted while approaching the intersection. It's unclear whether or not Brown was watching a film though, because eyewitnesses at the scene offer conflicting accounts as to whether or not the DVD player was on, .
We have also received a statement from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, which made clear that the preliminary investigation is not an indictment of Tesla or Autopilot.
"The opening of the Preliminary Evaluation should not be construed as a finding that the Office of Defects Investigation believes there is either a presence or absence of a defect in the subject vehicles," said Bryan Thomas, NHTSA's communications director.
This is the first fatal accident in a Tesla vehicle since the company launched its semi-autonomous driving technology last October. In that time, vehicles using Autopilot have traveled more than 130 million miles, according to Tesla's data logs.
The National Transportation Board it will investigate the wreckage from the crash to determine if there are any significant issues with Autopilot.
ORIGINAL REPORT: We've seen minor incidents with Teslas driven in Autopilot mode, but it seems like we now have our first major incident with the semi-autonomous driving function engaged. Tesla today that NHTSA has opened up a preliminary evaluation into the performance of Autopilot during a fatal accident with a Model S and a tractor-trailer.
Per from CNBC's Phil Lebau, the accident occurred May 7th in Florida. In a statement given to the press, NHTSA says that this incident,"calls for an examination of the design and performance of any driving aids in use at the time of the crash." The car involved in the crash was a 2015 Model S, and NHTSA says it will investigate 25,000 cars.
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.
While details remain minimal so far, there are a few quick observations that can be made based off Tesla's description of the accident.
First off, this isn't the first time we've seen seen a potential issue with Autopilot not being able to sense obstructions of a certain height. Earlier this year, a Model S owner claimed that his Autopilot-equipped car crashed itself into a trailer. While Tesla debunked this claim and said that the man irresponsibly used the automated Summon parking feature, the incident showed that the Model S's hardware does have limitations in terms of detecting forward obstructions. Perhaps that happened here when the semi crossed in front of the Model S.
Tesla also points out that if the car had hit the front or rear of the trailer the occupant would have likely survived thanks to the Model S's crash safety system. Of course, there's no way to know if that is true, and that isn't what happened.
What is perhaps most worrisome is whether the driver was even paying attention at all before the accident happened. Tesla says that the car's hardware and the driver couldn't see the tractor-trailer's white side because of the "brightly lit sky" behind it, but until we find out more, this sounds like speculation. Worth noting is that the Model S's Autopilot system relies on a forward-facing radar and camera to "see" obstacles, and though it can be easy for humans to lose an object against the sky, a tractor-trailer is a very big object to miss if you are actively engaged in the driving experience.
Tesla has faced plenty of scrutiny from regulators and other carmakers since the release of Autopilot in October. It is the first commercial semi-autonomous driving system that allows drivers to fully remove their hands from the wheel, and to many in the auto industry, Tesla deployed it to the public sooner than was believed to be safe or responsible. The fact that the company called the rollout a "beta" hasn't helped either.
Almost immediately after Autopilot's release there were issues with drivers experimenting with the technology. While there have been instances of Autopilot preventing incidents, there have also been numerous smaller accidents and even videos of drivers sleeping while at the wheel. Again, we do not know near enough yet to say definitively what happened here, but this surely won't help Tesla's case with critics.
In its statement, Telsa said the driver killed "was a friend to Tesla and the broader EV community," but did not release any further details.
, the Model S owner killed in the accident reportedly was the same driver that recently posted a video of a near accident while in Autopilot mode. The video by a man named Joshua Brown, matches the circumstances of the crash as described in Tesla's statement. In the video, the Model S quickly veers right to avoid being hit by a truck moving into its lane, showing just one of the many potential benefits of autonomous technologies.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk offered in his condolences in a tweet sent out shortly after news of the crash broke.
While NHTSA conducts its investigation and more details come to light, it will be telling to see how the world—especially the media—reacts to this news. Considering this is the first fatality to occur on public roads with an advanced semi-autonomous technology engaged, there is the possibility that the technology, one that almost every carmaker in the world is working on in varying capacities to reduce everything from deaths to emissions, will suffer a set back.
That said, accidents and fatalities are bound to happen as we move forward with such a new technology. As has been done in so many other fields, society has to decide if it thinks the potential benefits outweigh the inevitable costs. If we do, then the ultimate question is how to develop the technology as responsibly as possible, and right now, all eyes are on Tesla.
This story was last updated on 7/8 3:30 p.m. ET to reflect news of the NTSB's investigation.