The first-ever fatality in an autonomous car occurred nearly two months ago when a Tesla Model S in “Autopilot” mode crashed into the side of a turning semi-truck on a Florida highway.
The fatal accident, which happened on May 7 in Williston, Florida, was confirmed by U.S. regulators and the car company Thursday afternoon. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has launched a probe into the incident.
According to a report from the Associated Press, the Autopiloted Model S crashed into the truck as it was making a left turn at the intersection of a divided highway. The truck crossed in front of the electric sports car and the Autopilot system failed to apply its brakes.
The car, which was operated by Joshua D. Brown, 40, of Canton, Ohio, slammed into the bottom of the truck’s tractor-trailer windshield-first. Brown later died of injuries suffered during the crash; he was a former Navy SEAL, according to the AP.
Though still in its early stages, Tesla’s Autopilot system is a pioneer in the automotive industry, as the Model S is one of the first vehicles available to the general public that can drive itself for stretches.
Reports and even videos of Tesla vehicles crashing while in Autopilot mode have surfaced in recent months, but this first fatality reminds those clamoring for widespread autonomous driving that the technology remains a work in progress. It also emboldens the dissenters who argue nothing can be done to eliminate accidents completely.
In a blog posted titled “A Tragic Loss” published on teslamotors.com on Thursday, Tesla expressed condolences to the family of the man who died during the accident, but stressed the uniqueness of the situation that led to his death. The vehicle was illuminated by a brightly lit sky, according to the company, making it difficult for both Brown and the car’s Autopilot system to detect it in time.
Tesla maintains that had the car hit the trailer head-on from the front or rear, the safety systems would have worked more efficiently.
Tesla said it was not aware that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had opened an investigation into the death until Wednesday evening.
Our condolences for the tragic loss https://t.co/zI2100zEGL
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) June 30, 2016
Tesla classified the accident as occurring under “extremely rare circumstances.” The company also stressed that the Autopilot system is merely an “assist feature,” which is still in the beta testing stage.
To further couch the significance of its first fatality, Tesla said this is the first known fatality in more than 130 million collective miles driven in Autopilot mode, compared to broader U.S. average of a fatal accident every 94 million miles and a worldwide average of one fatality every 60 million miles.
“Autopilot is getting better all the time, but it is not perfect and still requires the driver to remain alert,” the company said in its blog post. “Nonetheless, when used in conjunction with driver oversight, the data is unequivocal that Autopilot reduces driver workload and results in a statistically significant improvement in safety when compared to purely manual driving.”