U.S. regulators disclosure late Thursday that Tesla Motors Inc. (NASDAQ: TSLA)’s autopilot feature is linked to a death in Florida car accident. Regulators said the man was killed while driving a Tesla Model S under self-driving mode is a reminder that self-driving car technology is still very much a work in progress. The accident is likely the first death involving a self-driving vehicle.
According to regulators and a Florida Highway Patrol report, Joshua Brown, a 40-year-old Ohio owner of a Tesla Model S, died when his electric car drove under the trailer of an 18-wheel truck on a highway in Williston, Florida, on May 7. Joshua Brown had recorded a video of his car’s autopilot avoiding a crash and posted it on YouTube earlier in the year.
The Tesla, of course, requires a driver, but it does have autonomous driving features that can do things like manage the vehicle in stop-and-go traffic. It is far cry from Google’s vision of a truly autonomous car that doesn’t even have a steering wheel, but it is one among many high-end vehicles that have the ability to do something without human intervention.
Tesla said the vehicle’s Autopilot system—designed with lane-keeping, automatic braking and steering functions traditionally left to drivers—didn’t automatically brake because the truck couldn’t be detected given certain conditions.
“Neither Autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake wasn’t applied,” Tesla said. “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 hitting the windshield of the Model S.”
Earlier this year, Tesla released a software update for the feature that prevented it from being used on residential streets or on roads without a center divider. The company also restricted autopilot from exceeding the posted speed limit by more than 5 miles per hour. Tesla had already been under scrutiny for alleged suspension problems in cars, even regulators have yet to find any defect.