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Fatal Accident Prompts NHTSA to Investigate Tesla's Autopilot Feature

Tesla Motors said a May accident represents the first known fatality while one of its cars was driving in Autopilot mode.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is investigating the performance of Tesla Motors’ Autopilot feature — which is set to appear in many, many more cars once the Model 3 hits the streets — after a Model S driver died with his car in Autopilot mode in Florida.

Tesla announced the investigation June 30 in a blog post on its website, calling the accident a “tragic loss” and saying that it represents the first known fatality while Autopilot was engaged.

“This is the first known fatality in just over 130 million miles where Autopilot was activated,” the post read. “Among all vehicles in the U.S., there is a fatality every 94 million miles. Worldwide, there is a fatality approximately every 60 million miles.”

According to an article by the Levy County Journal, a local newspaper in Florida, the accident happened in Williston, Fla., on May 7. The Model S driver, who was from Ohio, was traveling on a highway when a semi-truck made a left turn in front of the vehicle. The Model S struck the underside of the trailer, ripping the roof off the car, and the driver died at the scene.

Autopilot includes features meant to prevent such crashes, but according to Tesla’s blog post, a combination of factors led to the software failing to recognize the danger.

“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 blog post reads. “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.”

The Autopilot feature will come standard in Tesla’s Model 3, which is the company’s first “mass-market” car. The electric vehicle, which is set to begin selling in 2017, received a staggeringly large number of preorders upon its announcement — more than 400,000, implying $14 billion in sales. Such numbers would mean a much wider familiarity with semi-automated driving.

Meanwhile, NHTSA is working on guidelines to help states regulate self-driving vehicles. It plans on releasing those guidelines sometime this year.

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.