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Tesla and Mobileye disagree on why Autopilot didn't apply brakes

The two companies offer different reasons for why Tesla's Autopilot feature didn't brake and save a driver's life.

Jim Dyson/Getty Images

Sometimes it's better to say nothing.

Mobileye, a heavy hitter in autonomous-car technology, may have learned that lesson the hard way Friday after Tesla Motors challenged Mobileye's statement regarding the first reported fatality involving Tesla's Autopilot system.

That's because Mobileye said no current collision-avoidance technology could have reacted to the white tractor trailer as it drove across a divided highway and into the path of the Model S.

"This incident involved a laterally crossing vehicle, which current-generation AEB [automatic emergency braking] systems are not designed to actuate upon," Dan Galves, Mobileye's chief communications officer, said in a statement to StreetInsider. He added that Mobileye's system will be able to detect another vehicle's "Lateral Turn Across Path" movement in 2018.

Tesla countered a few hours later, basically saying Galves doesn't know everything.

"Since January 2016, Autopilot activates automatic emergency braking in response to any interruption of the ground plane in the path of the vehicle that cross-checks against a consistent radar signature," Tesla said in an emailed statement.

Autopilot enables a Tesla Model S or Model X to automatically speed up and slow down based on traffic and speed limit. On Thursday, Tesla said the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is looking into the crash.

So what went wrong? "In the case of this accident, the high, white side of the box truck, combined with a radar signature that would have looked very similar to an overhead sign, caused automatic braking not to fire," according to Tesla.

Tesla developed Autopilot itself, using what it calls "a fusion" of component technologies, including a vision chip from Mobileye. It's "only one of a dozen internally and externally developed component technologies that collectively constitute Autopilot," a Tesla representative said.

Mobileyes' Galves later clarified that his original statement wasn't meant to comment on "the capability of the overall system that Tesla has designed," but rather just Mobileye's own capabilities.

Correction, 8:03 p.m. PT: This story has been rewritten to more accurately describe Tesla's and Mobileye's differing points of view.