​Tesla under investigation after fatal Model S Autopilot crash

A Tesla Model S sedan has tragically been involved in a fatal crash, and use of the car's Autopilot system is under investigation.

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The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is looking into the first reported fatality in a Tesla Model S to occur while Autopilot was engaged. Tesla confirmed Thursday the crash took place when a tractor trailer drove across a highway ahead of the car. Tragically, neither the driver nor the Autopilot system identified the trailer and applied the brakes.

Autopilot is a name for a suite of features available on the Model S sedan and Model X SUV. Together, Autopilot enables the car to automatically speed up and slow down based on traffic and speed limit, as well as steer itself around corners in limited circumstances.

As I found when reviewing the Model X, the feature works remarkably well -- most of the time. However, it is far from perfect, and indeed Tesla tells drivers "you need to maintain control and responsibility for your vehicle" when enabling the optional feature.

Tesla indicates that 130 million miles have been covered by owners using Autopilot in their Models S and X, whereas there is, on average, a fatality every 94 million miles driven on American roads. Look globally and that number drops to 60 million miles. Even so, the magnifying glass will surely be focused very tightly on this crash, particularly after an incident last month, where an owner said that his Model S crashed itself into a trailer.

That NHTSA is investigating the issue doesn't mean that Autopilot or Tesla are at fault, and given the company's famously comprehensive data tracking of its cars I have no doubt that federal officials will have a crystal clear view into the exact circumstances of this crash. We'll have to wait and see where their findings place blame, but as we enter an era of increasing autonomy of our cars, this could prove to be a bellwether incident.

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