Autopilot Feature Likely Not at Fault in Tesla Model S Fatal Crash

NEWS ANALYSIS: The fatal collision between a Tesla Model S and a tractor-trailer in Florida was probably due to mistakes by both drivers, but not the vehicle and its software.

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The fatal collision between a Tesla Model S operating in its Autopilot mode and a tractor-trailer hauling blueberries on a Florida highway was due to a series of errors, which is the case in many if not most serious traffic accidents.

Now, as federal investigators from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and from Tesla work to sort out the chain of mistakes that led to the May 7 crash that killed the driver of the Tesla Model S, some facts have become clear.

Those facts point to driver error, but at this point, there's no indication that the Autopilot software on the Tesla was responsible for the accident. This means that the dire predictions by some in the (non-technology) media that the accident would mean the end of autonomous vehicles are wrong.

But if the self-driving functions of the Tesla weren't at fault, then what was? The short answer is that the drivers of both vehicles apparently did things that contributed to the accident's cause. The truck driver made an improper left turn and the driver of the Tesla apparently wasn't paying as close attention as he should have.

The accident happened like this: The Tesla was heading east on U.S. Route 27, a four-lane divided highway in Williston, Fla. The truck was heading in the opposite direction, on the other side of the highway. The driver of the truck made a left turn into the path of the Tesla, which collided with the trailer. The Tesla's roof was sheared off and the rest of the car continued off the highway until it hit a power pole. The New York Times published a clear diagram of the accident.

Some facts about the accident are not in dispute, notably that the Tesla driver was using the car's Autopilot software at the time of the accident. Likewise, the Tesla's brakes were not applied prior to the accident, so when it hit the trailer that had turned in front of it, the impact was at an estimated speed of 65 miles per hour.

Also not in dispute is the fact that the truck driver steered directly into the path of the Tesla when he made a left turn on to a side road. Statements by the truck driver reported in the police report indicate that he didn't see the oncoming Tesla until it was too late to prevent the accident.

There is a witness report that a DVD player was showing a Harry Potter movie at the time of the accident, but that has not been confirmed, although the police report did say that a DVD player was found in the wreckage.

The police report said that the driver of the tractor-trailer failed to yield the right of way to the oncoming traffic. No charges were filed at the time of the accident, but that does not mean that charges won't be filed following the investigation.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...